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Technology has transformed the American economy. ATMs have revolutionized how people bank. The online travel service Orbitz has dramatically changed how we buy airplane tickets. Today, many people use their smartphones to purchase just about anything, from a taxi ride to groceries. But despite all its transformative power, modern technology has done little to change K-12 education. Fifty-year-olds walking through an average school today will recognize much from their days behind a classroom desk. Certainly some things have been updated. There would be a few smart boards. The principal might have an iPad. But on the whole, the scene would look closer to their childhood experience than a futuristic vision of education transformed by technology.
However, this might be changing. Many school district strategic plans and education conferences are aggressively embracing technology to improve teaching and learning. The pages of Education Week, the K-12 publication of record, are jam-packed with products, software, and consulting to bring technology to the classroom. In a recent issue, fully 40 pages were devoted to this topic. This so-called “classroom technology” includes blended learning, personalized learning, online courses for students, and professional development for teachers, among many other things.
As districts wrestle with tighter budgets and higher academic standards, a different kind of technology might create game-changing transformation in the education sector: management technology. As the name suggests, classroom technology aims to improve what goes on in the classroom. Management technology, on the other hand, is more indirect: Management technology helps school and district leaders make better decisions, run leaner organizations, and target funds to programs that help kids the most. In short, it helps those in charge of districts and schools manage better.
This report, which looks closely at the use of management technology in education, finds that most school districts fail to use these tools to improve their outcomes. In most cases, they lack both the technology and capacity to analyze their data and figure out effective and cost-effective solutions to raising achievement and reducing costs. Moreover, as this report argues, a large part of the problem is that the fundamental design and culture of schools today are not in sync with these new approaches.
Finally, this report includes the following policy recommendations for how K-12 education can gain the same benefits from big data that many other sectors have. Before going any further, it must be noted that technology alone is not the solution. Computers, electronic devices, or the Internet alone will not create reform. In too many cases, experts have overpromised on technology and underdelivered. What’s more, technology is dependent on people, culture, systems, and processes. In other words, management information systems are only as good as the individuals behind them. That said, technology can provide significant change, and our specific recommendations are highlighted here and examined in greater detail later in the text.
- States and the federal government need to facilitate the development of actionable management information. If state and federal reports used common definitions for the data they collect; if they made available easy exports of the data submitted; and if they adopted a uniform chart of accounts for costing—a type of budget dictionary—then the quality of data available to districts would increase without added cost or effort.
- Districts should make small investments to fund technology-infused analytics. Setting up a small annual fund of perhaps as little as $50 per student in districts with up to 5,000 students and dropping to approximately $20 per student in larger districts, for example, would bankroll a robust management information system and the staff needed to use it.
- Bring talent, technology, and data to the decision-making table. District CFOs should be enlisted as strategic partners doing more than just tracking spending decisions and play a much bigger role in ensuring that district leaders know what programs and strategies are effective and cost effective.
- Link results to key decisions such as continued funding or staff promotion. The fastest way to raise the importance of management information and its related data analytics is to tie crucial decisions to the outcome of these analyses.
Looking forward, districts will need to change. They face increased expectations, and in many cases, slowly sagging revenues. In light of these pressures, it is clear that better, smarter management technology can go a long way to improving education productivity.
Nathan Levenson is senior managing director of the District Management Council, a firm committed to helping public school districts raise student achievement, improve operational efficiencies, and reduce costs—all at the same time. Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he analyzes education, criminal justice, and other social policy issues.