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Gaps in education data: there are many questions for which we don’t have accurate answers

Education policy can’t get off the ground because of a lack of good data. from www.shutterstock.com

Gaps in education data: there are many questions for which we don’t have accurate answers

Too many questions in education remain unanswered.

Without access to good data and evidence we cannot make informed education policy decisions, or invest limited resources where they will have the biggest impact.

What is the issue?

Australia generally collects education data in silos. Different data is collected in different ways in each state and territory.

There are differences between the data collected and made available in government, independent and Catholic school sectors, and between different types of early education and care providers.

This makes it very hard to compare data between states and to gain a national picture – and to understand whether particular policies or investments are having an impact.

Privacy is often considered a barrier to using data, but there are ways to use data in meaningful ways while having tight safeguards to protect the privacy of individuals and schools – this is the norm in health research, for example.

There are also huge gaps in what data is collected.

This means we cannot always track the impact of policy and practice changes, nor can we answer crucial questions surrounding “what works, for whom, and in what circumstances?”.

This inhibits our ability to make informed decisions about where to target investment to maximise impact.

We are also not making the best use of the data we have. While we collect a lot of data, it is often not available to schools, the community or researchers.

Government departments, who are custodians of a great deal of Australian education data, can be reluctant to share data (with other parts or levels of government, and with educators and the community) if the results might highlight problems.

Some data custodians experience technical issues in making their data easy to access – for example, if they are still running paper-based systems or older-style databases that have limited functionality.

There have also been challenges with privacy legislation – for example with families not being asked to provide consent for their data to be used for research and analysis when they provide information.

What do we not have data on?

Some of the questions that we simply don’t have accurate answers for include:

  • Does early childhood education improve high school graduation rates in Australia (like it has in other countries)?

  • How many three year olds attend pre-school and for how many hours a week?

  • What are the best ways to reduce the impact of socio-economic status on children’s educational opportunities?

  • How do children progress from early education through schooling and tertiary education and into the workforce?

  • How are students with disabilities progressing through their education?

What is the Productivity Commission recommending?

The Productivity Commission just released its draft report discussing how to improve education outcomes in schools.

Among other things, the report says we need to make sure education data is easier to access, more transparent, and shared more effectively.

The Productivity Commission makes a number of recommendations for how to achieve this, including:

  • Establishing a national coordinating body to ensure high-quality research addresses national priorities, similar to models operating in other countries, like the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation.

  • Considering individual student identifiers, a unique reference number for each student, so we can better understand young people’s educational journeys, from early education through to post-tertiary pathways.

  • Ensuring privacy legislation is consistent between the states and territories and making de-identified (anonymous) data accessible to researchers.

  • Adding new cohorts to the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children at regular intervals, to provide rich data on the experience of Australian children and young people.

  • Including both early childhood education and school education in the national education evidence base, rather than treating them as unrelated sectors and prioritising school education over early education.

  • Developing a coherent strategic agenda for research into early childhood and school education, so our investment in research answers the questions that are important to better education policy and practice.

What has the report missed?

Researchers aren’t the only people who benefit from access to education data. Data should be accessible to all.

Early childhood education providers and schools benefit from knowing the academic outcomes of children in their community. And families and communities benefit from accessing information on the effectiveness of our education system.

High impact data collections, such as the Australian Early Development Census have had a significant impact on addressing local issues.

Putting data into the hands of the community has catalysed collaboration between early childhood educators, local primary schools, and health, wellbeing and family support services to address the most important issues for children in their local area.

Improve sharing of collected data

The draft report suggests the cost of improving data quality might outweigh the benefits.

But open and accessible data is a core requirement for monitoring the ongoing impact and long-term outcomes of policy and investment decisions.

This is particularly important in early childhood education and care. The lack of quality data means we cannot track the impact of important policy reforms, like universal access) to preschool for four year olds.

Ongoing monitoring of impact – at school, regional, state and national levels – remains critical, even once there is high quality research.

Why we need a national coordinating body for education research

The Productivity Commission report shows that we spent more than five billion dollars on health research in 2013-14, but less than half a billion on education research.

As a result, we don’t have enough education research to answer the most pressing questions.

Existing Australian education research often doesn’t use the sorts of methods that can show cause and effect, because measuring impact costs more.

And without a national strategic research agenda, we rely on what individual researchers are able to get funding for – which is neither efficient nor sufficient for a highly effective education system.

The national body recommended by the Productivity Commission would have responsibility for a strategic research agenda.

It should also have a focus on driving improvements in the quality of data collected in all education sectors and across states and territories; and on making that data available and accessible to families, educators, communities and researchers.