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New $50M statewide education data system faces uphill battle

The state is searching for nearly $50 million to implement an interconnected school data system that officials and lawmakers say is vital to measuring student achievement and teacher performance at all levels throughout the state. And the clock is ticking.

Details of what types of information the new system will provide are still being worked out in committee, but it would likely store and share information on student achievement and progress, teacher evaluations and school performance ratings. Ideally, the system would provide access to student/teacher information to all districts and education officials anywhere in the state.

Right now, some districts do have data sharing systems in place, but these district-level systems don’t “talk” with each other, according to education officials. Teachers are receiving information, such as test scores and other measures of performance, but often, they’re getting it after a child has changed grades or schools, and it is not being forwarded, said Rebecca Gau, director of the Governor’s Office of Education Innovation.

“It’s impossible to establish a continuous improvement philosophy in which you collaborate, monitor and adjust on behalf of kids,” Gau said. “You cannot do that without usable, real-time information going between teachers and students, between leaders and teachers, between districts and leaders. You can’t make decisions about how kids are doing if you don’t have the information.”

The biggest barrier to building the data system is funding. Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal estimates the up-front cost of the system at between $40 million and $50 million. The money would also have to be requested during a time when the Legislature has already steadily cut education funding due to ongoing budget shortfalls.

Although some federal grants were available through the stimulus for other states undertaking similar projects, most of those have dried up, Huppenthal said, so the state would be on its own unless it could find private grants to cover some of the cost.

The fact that some districts already have their own systems in place can help reduce the cost to some degree, since an existing system provides planners a framework. Also, advances in technology, such as “cloud” drives that are accessible anywhere, can also help reduce costs, said Mark Masterson, chief information officer for the Arizona Department of Education.

And once the system is in place, it will be a money-saver in the long term by streamlining maintenance and administrative operations, he added. Ultimately, a well-built, effective system should pay for itself within months. “If this will cost the state more money long-term, we would throw it in the trash,” Masterson said. “But what this will do is take more money and get it back to the classroom, back to the kids.”

Getting this system up and running is a key stepping stone for several larger education reforms.

Huppenthal, during his time as a state senator, said he didn’t realize how important it was to get the data system running as a precursor to making real improvements to education.

“When I was down at the Capitol, no one down there ever grabbed me by the lapels and shook me and said, ‘If you really want a great education system, you need to fix this computer system,’” he said. “Nobody down there will be able to say that next session.”

In 2010, then-Sen. Huppenthal pushed through a program set to start next school year that is intended to use data from the new system. The program places greater emphasis on teacher performance based on student achievement. New teacher contracts will be based on these evaluations, including decisions such as pay and hiring or firing decisions.

The governor’s Arizona Ready program was developed with the intention of using the new data system to achieve its goals of increasing reading comprehension and high school graduation rates. The program is based on the premise that there needs to be a better connection through all facets of education, from preschool to K-12 to higher education. The overall vision for the program is for all education sectors to work together, for the same goal, under the same mandate.

Until the system is actually funded and implemented, any new education reform measures will either be on hold, or proceed slowly.

That puts lawmakers like Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, into the role of buzzkill at the Legislature. Carter, who serves as chair of an ad hoc committee to study the data system, said that next legislative session she’s going to take it upon herself to remind lawmakers who are talking about education bills that the infrastructure might not be in place yet.

“Anything we do and everything we continue to do from this point forward in education needs to be measured against: What data do we have to implement this?” she said.

Huppenthal and Carter added that the need for a new data-collection system doesn’t necessarily mean a complete moratorium on education reform. “We cannot let the lack of a system stop us from having these conversations, but we need to make sure that the system is part of our conversation,” Carter said.

Despite the daunting challenges facing this project, Huppenthal has made it a top priority to get the system in place.

“We are at a point where, if we are going to keep going along the path of the steady pace of reforms and research-based reforms, we have to have a system that is functional,” he said. “If we want to have an education system that can perform at a higher level, we are fooling ourselves if we think it can be done without investing in this new data system.”

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