March 5, 2021: A post from Greg Fortelny, Chief Data Officer and Matt Soldner, Evaluation Officer, U.S. Department of Education
Last year, the education landscape changed dramatically as the effects of the coronavirus swept across the country. Overnight, families were confronted with the twin challenges of keeping their children, loved ones, and communities safe while establishing learning environments which enabled students to succeed and achieve. With each passing day, our schools are one step nearer recovery. But here at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), our work is far from done. Among the many lessons learned in the wake of the pandemic is that we must take full advantage of every opportunity to strengthen education systems and improve outcomes for all learners. From where we sit, making the most of those opportunities depends on two things: high-quality data and evidence.
Basing education policy and practice in strong evidence that is rooted in high-quality data can accelerate learning for all students, speeding efforts to recover from the pandemic’s effects. As the stewards of education data and evidence at ED, it is our charge from the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (Evidence Act) to improve the collection, analysis, and use of high-quality data and evidence. By doing so, we hope to help educators and policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels make the most effective decisions possible on behalf of the learners, families, and communities they serve.
In the two years since the passage of the Evidence Act, the Department’s Office of the Chief Data Officer (OCDO) has made progress in supporting ED’s mission to improve education outcomes by effectively leveraging data to support evidence-based policy and data-driven decision-making. The Department’s Data Governance Board (DGB) was created to lead these efforts and, with the launch of its inaugural Data Strategy in December 2020, ED has established guidance and goals to go further to improve data quality and enable evidence-building in service of our nation’s learners.
The work of evidence-building is a collaborative effort, coordinated by ED’s Evaluation Officer housed at the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences. In this first phase of Evidence Act implementation, the Department has published a new agency-wide evaluation policy that governs the generation of its most rigorous evidence and is preparing to release its inaugural Annual Evaluation Plan. As part of the agency’s strategic planning process, ED will also develop and publish its first-ever Learning Agenda, documenting its evidence-building priorities for the next four years.
Even prior to the passage of the Evidence Act, ED has made data and evidence a priority. For decades, ED has been collecting and publishing data on students, teachers, schools, colleges, grants, student aid and more. Now, with the launch of the ED’s Open Data Platform (ODP) in December 2020, educators, researchers, stakeholders, decision-makers, and the public can explore the array of taxpayer-funded education data and profiles through a user-friendly interface, with all data accessible from one central online repository.
At OCDO, we developed the ODP to link to research and ED data tools that serve to engage and inform the public through various displays of that publicly available data. One rich example of these tools is the recently enhanced College Scorecard. Visited by more than 1.4 million users in 2020, ED’s College Scorecard now enables students and their advocates to more easily search field of study identifiers and compare similar fields of study within an institution or across different institutions. And with recent updates including information on loan repayment rates and parent PLUS loan debt, prospective students now have even more data to make more informed enrollment decisions and to find the right postsecondary fit.
In addition to making existing data more accessible to decision-makers, the Department invests in new discoveries in the education sciences that have the potential to dramatically improve student outcomes and strengthen education systems. For nearly 20 years, the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has worked to bring rigorous, independent, and objective education statistics, research, and evaluation to bear on challenges from early childhood to adult and postsecondary education.
Through its National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), IES supports several programs dedicated to improving the use of data and evidence in education practice. NCEE’s Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) program works in partnership with state and local educators and policymakers to develop and use research that improves academic outcomes for students. It’s What Works Clearinghouse™ reviews existing research on education programs, practices, and policies in education to help families, teachers, and leaders answer the question “what works” in the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities. And, through its Evaluation Division, NCEE conducts independent, high-quality evaluations of education programs supported by federal funds.
In recent months, much of the work of both OCDO and IES has pivoted to address the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. At IES, we have developed a wide range of COVID-related resources for families, educators, and policymakers. And our National Center for Education Statistics has recently announced a new survey designed to collect vital data on schools’ approaches to learning during the pandemic, critical to safely reopening America’s schools and promoting educational equity.
OCDO also has also created valuable new resources in response to the pandemic. The new Education Stabilization Fund Public Transparency Portal provides public transparency and accountability for the over $30 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, the Governor's Emergency Education Relief, and the Higher Education Emergency Relief funds established through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic (CARES) Act. The grant funds were awarded to states, schools, and institutions of higher education last spring. Continuously updated to reflect new activity, this portal provides the public with accurate, reliable, and accessible data on one of the largest federal investments in education in our country’s history. The portal will soon include similar accounting of the awards made to states, districts, and colleges through the $81.9 billion in Education Stabilization Funds authorized through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, 2021.
Despite the challenges we face, there is optimism, like the spark of an engaged student or the light of an inspired educator; we are eager to continue the work to serve learners through data. The critical data priorities of ED are to empower users and leverage the data to address education equity gaps too often borne by our nation’s underprivileged students. Rigorous evaluation identifies effective policies and practices, open and transparent data furthers research and public trust. Leveraging data to inform decisions not only improves ED operations but also helps guide schools and families in their efforts to support students and improve education outcomes.
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Yours Truly in Data and Evaluation,
Greg and Matt
P.S. Happy International Open Data Day Eve!