State departments of education as well as schools and districts across the U.S. have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years in data systems to track student and school performance. The focus on data-driven decision making has, in fact, led to some improvements in practice and is no doubt better than the alternative of relying solely on intuition to make key decisions.

But, data isn’t the same thing as intelligence. The data dashboards we’ve spent so much time and money deploying are, at best, a blunt instrument for making change.

We’re beginning to see a shift in how schools think about data systems. While the current generation of these systems has largely focused on aggregating data in one place in hopes that educators can find the time and develop the expertise required to interpret those dashboards to improve practice, it’s now possible for the systems themselves to interpret data and call attention to variances that require intervention. Even more interesting, we’re starting to see recommendation engines that can offer insights to educators in delivering new interventions. These aren’t black boxes that take the place of capable and caring adults working with kids. Instead, they complement the expertise of educators and parents, and they work in conjunction with a data platform that captures feedback on what’s done and what works to inform future recommendations.

The notion of data as a panacea is gradually giving way to a focus on putting data in context in a way that’s actionable.

Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith

Stephen M. Smith is CEO of Intellispark, chair of the national board at College Possible, and a member of the board of the National College Access Network. Steve is co-author of Who Do You Think You Are: Three Critical Conversations for Coaching Teens to College & Career Success, published by John Wiley & Sons.