The realities of data collection in K-12 public education


Feb 8, 2011

K-12 public education accounts for the biggest slice of state and local government budgets. In 2005, the public spent some $500 billion annually on K-12 public education—or an average of $8,701 per pupil—and education spending has continued to increase in subsequent years. Incredibly, this is roughly the same amount the U.S. spends on the military. Yet, despite the large sum of money spent annually on K-12 public education, schools and districts often have difficulty accounting for how and where they are specifically spending these dollars.

In my research of various online-learning programs, I’ve been continually surprised by just how difficult it is to obtain such seemingly basic data about a program as the number of students enrolled, the number of students who withdrew/dropped out, the number of graduates, the number of courses completed annually, basic student demographic data, and budget breakdowns. While schools and districts do track this data for their schools and district as a whole, more often than not they do not track it for specific programs. For example, none of the schools I’ve studied could tell me how much money they spent on, the number of students enrolled in, or the number of courses completed annually in their credit-recovery programs because they clump these numbers with the rest of the data for the school. Would a for-profit company only know how the company is performing as a whole without breaking down the data by departments and groups? I highly doubt it. Unfortunately, this lack of data makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of using online learning for credit recovery.

Furthermore, when schools and districts do provide data about specific programs, it is often inaccurate. For example, one district gave me student enrollment and graduation numbers for its dropout-recovery program that showed that more students had graduated from the program that year than were enrolled. An impressive, yet impossible, feat indeed!

What disturbs me most about the lack of reliable data available for online-learning programs in K-12 public education is that online learning is still a relatively new platform for education. As a result, limited research has been performed on its effectiveness. This means that schools and districts should be monitoring their online-learning programs very closely to determine the programs’ effectiveness and to validate spending taxpayer dollars on them. It seems that every school and district should at least know the following data about each of their online-learning programs: (1) the number of students enrolled, (2) the number of students who withdrew and/or dropped out, (3) the number of graduates, (4) the number of courses completed, (5) the approximate per-pupil costs, and (6) basic student demographic data. Any other industry would track such data when dealing with a new product whose results were still unknown, so why should education be any different?