Education as a Data-Driven Enterprise

For decades, leaders have been sounding the alarm that our educational advantage was slipping. The opening lines of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, still ring in our ears, "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

The years that would follow showed signs of such decline as America remained lower than expected in rankings internationally, while student achievement stagnated at home on many indicators, such as third grade reading, high school graduation rates and college and career readiness. Equally frightening were the things we did not know at the time -- exactly how large and persistent gaps in achievement were between minority, low-income and special education students and their peers; how low graduation rates actually were in many districts and states; and how early students began dropping out of school.

Boosting educational outcomes for students is no easy task. As Robert Putnam states so compellingly in his book, Our Kids, the large opportunity gap between "have" and "have not" children is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school and outside of school than what happens within a school. School becomes what he calls an "echo chamber" of those experiences, both supportive and challenging.

But when schools and communities have better information about each student -- what they bring with them to school in terms of preparation, the trauma or supports they have had in their homes and neighborhoods and real-time information on how they are performing on a wide range of indicators of success -- they can do a better job preparing young people for their futures.

Over the last fifteen years, the private and public sectors have worked effectively to make education a stronger data-driven enterprise in areas related to the challenge of high school dropouts. Think tanks, research institutes and foundations -- such as the Manhattan Institute, Harvard Civil Rights Project, EPE Research Center, Data Quality Campaign, Chicago Consortium, the Everyone Graduates Center, Alliance for Excellent Education, Mathematica, California Dropout Research Project, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation -- were early leaders. They have produced and supported groundbreaking research that enables us to better understand graduation rates, what causes students to drop out of school, which schools were losing the most students and the early warning signs of eventual dropout.

Governors stepped up to create a common calculation of graduation rates that the U.S. Department of Education improved and No Child Left Behind made part of real accountability for states, districts and schools.

America's Promise Alliance mobilized leaders across sectors to foster an evidence-based plan of action and align the work of community-based non-profits with the needs in low-performing schools.

Corporations, such as AT&T, supported and funded education organizations that implemented evidence-based interventions that showed improved student outcomes like higher graduation rates. The corporate funding helped to encourage a stronger data-driven enterprise in education so everyone involved -- teachers, counselors, principals, caregivers and leaders -- had the information they needed to keep students on track to graduate. This work is part of AT&T Aspire, through which AT&T has committed $350 million to help communities and schools keep more students on track and deployed their workforce to mentor students and connect learning to careers.

Data systems improved. Longitudinal data connects information about students from the time they start school until they enter their careers; early-warning systems predict dropping out based on poor attendance, bad behavior and course failure, and prompts the appropriate supports; and college- and career- readiness indicators demonstrate whether students are well prepared to advance their postsecondary education and successfully enter the workplace.

Progress is being made in boosting high school graduation rates in districts and states across the nation. Part of that story has been a stronger commitment to building data systems and following the evidence of what works to ensure more students get the supports they need to finish high school, ready for college and work.

John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Robert Balfanz is Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Both are co-authors of the Building a Grad Nation report released this week and found at, in partnership with America's Promise Alliance.