In-depth with Data Quality Campaign President and CEO on data-driven decision making for better learning.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger has dedicated her career to ensuring that families and educators can access and use data in support of student learning and success. She has spent more than two decades leading efforts in some of the nation’s largest school districts to make data work for students.

A great place to start

Bell-Ellwanger’s career began as a kindergarten and first grade teacher in New York City’s public schools. Following her time in the classroom, Bell-Ellwanger served as a senior advisor to the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and executive director of research and policy support.

In 2012, she joined Baltimore City Schools as chief achievement and accountability officer, where she led efforts to advance the district’s use of data to improve student outcomes before being named interim chief of staff during the 2013-14 school year.

In 2015, she joined the U.S. Department of Education where she served as director of Policy and Program Studies Service and later as acting assistant secretary of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, leading efforts to make data more useful, reliable, and accessible to families across the nation. In 2016, her success at the department was highlighted as she received the Secretary’s Executive Leadership Award.

Ready for data

With more than 25 years’ experience teaching and leading at the classroom, district, state, and federal level, Bell-Ellwanger’s expertise in education data led her to her new role as the president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign in April 2018.

As the head of the nation’s leading voice on education data policy and use, Bell-Ellwanger is committed to the safe use of data and believes that when parents, educators, and policymakers have the right information to make decisions, students excel.

It’s a pleasure speaking with Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger today. Jennifer, as a lifelong educator, former classroom teacher, and experienced executive, what prompted you to get into education? What’s inspired your work?

Jennifer: I didn’t set out to be an educator. It was late in college when I decided to double major in psychology and education, that I became interested in teaching. My first teaching role was as a kindergarten teacher in the New York City Public Schools in the Bronx.

I thought I was just going to be there for a little while, but the minute I saw those faces – faces of kindergarteners who came to school with such joy and excitement every day – I was hooked. I knew it was the path for me.

Still today, my inspiration is drawn from those children and families that I worked with during my very first years as a teacher. As I’ve continued on in my career, with stops at the New York City Department of Education, Baltimore City Schools, the U.S. Department of Education, and now the Data Quality Campaign, it’s still those faces that inspire me and bring me to work every day.

You’ve been known as a champion for the power of data to transform teaching and learning. What highlights do you think speak to that?

Jennifer: Data is so critical and important. It shines a light on what’s working, and what areas may need improvement, and gives educators and parents the information they need to make decisions that will help their students succeed.

When I joined Baltimore City Public Schools, we made it a priority to ensure that the data that was being collected by the district was useful for teachers and for families. We worked hard to help them understand better the assessments that were being administered to their students and how they could use that data, as well as other information collected by teachers, to personalize every students’ learning experience.

By making the data more accessible and understandable, folks began to see the real power of data, and we were able to shift the conversation in Baltimore City to “what do our students need and how do we get them there?” Instead of, “Oh my goodness, I’m afraid of the assessments.”

Collecting data is often a sensitive issue. What are your thoughts on the collection of student data?

Jennifer: Data is a powerful tool. As I mentioned before, it highlights areas of strength and improvement, and can help to identify possible solutions, or even root causes about what’s going on. But education data should never be collected just for the sake of collecting data. It’s important to start with identifying the questions that you need answers to, and then to only collect the data that is relevant to those questions.

Data that is collected must provide parents and teachers the information they need to make important instructional and educational decisions for their children. And if people don’t feel that the data is trustworthy, or that it was not put together in a safe and secure way; they won’t use it. That’s why safeguarding data and building trust in how it’s used are essential.

How would you define educational data?

Jennifer: That’s a great question! I just had an interesting parent focus group where we also asked them this.

Educational data that is collected can take many different forms. For most people, the first thing that comes to mind is information that is collected from assessments taken by students. But data is so much more than a test score. It can be about attendance, it can be about observation, it can even be about student safety.

And it’s when you combine these different types of data – really helping to paint a full picture – that it becomes a powerful tool that parents and educators can use to create opportunities for student learning.

In more recent times data and data privacy have come to the forefront of many conversations. Do you ever feel like you’re in the hot seat?

Jennifer: I don’t feel that way, thankfully. I think that it is an exciting time for education. If anything, we are hearing more and more that parents want information about their schools.

And they need it to be understandable. In fact, a Harris Poll commissioned by DQC found that 91 percent of parents would use data about the performance of a school, such as test scores and graduation rates, to make critical education decisions for their children.

However, only 38 percent of parents strongly agreed that they have easy access to all the information they need to make sure that their child gets a great education.

Fortunately, states are listening and starting to provide more comprehensive pictures of student and school outcomes than ever before. Useful education data is becoming more available to people, especially as more people become involved and engaged in conversations and are learning more about it.

What value do pledges really have when companies sign on and take a pledge. Who checks that they’re following through?

Jennifer: Pledges can help send a positive signal to the public that a company is committed to helping protect students and their privacy. It also provides an internal form of self-regulation for the company and can help to hold them accountable for their actions.

But everyone, not just big companies, has a role to play in keeping our students’ information safe, and that includes states, districts, principals, teachers, and parents. In particular, all states are passing important laws to safeguard data and ensure it’s not only protected but used appropriately. In 2017 alone, legislators passed 53 new laws on how they collect, use, and protect data. These are positive strides.

How do you approach data, what to collect, and who gets to see it?

Jennifer: I think it’s important that we first take a step back and think about what information we want, what questions we want answered, and then ask ourselves, “Okay, what is the education data that needs to be collected to help to answer these questions?”

Once you collect that data, you can look at it with a critical eye, and use it to make decisions to address what’s going on in classrooms, schools, and communities.

In order to make data work for all students, every single person with a stake in education needs access to high-quality data that can be used to improve outcomes for kids.

At DQC, we are focused on making sure that all parents, teachers, and school leaders have access to high-quality information, because it’s one thing to collect it, and have agreement on those questions that you want answered, but it also needs to be made available to those who need it and done so in a safe way.

As part of this, every year we take an in-depth look at state report cards, identifying bright spots and offering ways that states can make their reporting clearer and more useful, and publish our analysis in our Show Me the Data report.

What do you regard as high-quality data?

Jennifer: High-quality data is data that people can use, that they can make sense of, and that they can put into action in their classrooms or in their community. It is also information that is collected and stored in a safe manner, ensuring students’ privacy is protected.

For instance, student attendance data can become high-quality, actionable data when a school is able to look at which students are coming to school each day and which students may be missing and answer questions like:

  • What are the instructional implications?
  • What do we need to do to help families ensure that their child is getting to school?
  • What are the barriers to getting to school? Who needs assistance in getting to school?

With this high-quality data in their hands, the school can make informed decisions that drive positive change.

We’re in a rapidly accelerating technological age. 25 years ago, we had data, but technology to collect, curate, summate, present, distribute, and spread it has changed. What are your thoughts on technology’s use in education?

Jennifer: Technology is important. It’s ever evolving. And it’s certainly not going anywhere. Not in our everyday lives and certainly not in education. It helps to connect us and can help us become more efficient and should be used in a way that supports how teachers, parents, and school leaders can analyze and use data.

It’s also really important that it’s not technology for technology’s sake, but that it’s used as an educational resource. Technology is not a replacement for teachers, nor for the interactions among teachers, students, and parents.

I would further say that I am a mom of three teenagers. I understand the concern about screen time and consuming too much technology, but I also know how important proficiency with technology will be to their future success.

It’s critical to find the right balance of use by students and ensure that the data can be leveraged by parents and teachers to make decisions that help students succeed in school and beyond.

What guiding principles have served you well to navigate or chart a course through hot topics like education and technology? What “north stars” are there for you as you sail forward?

Jennifer: Above all else, we must make sure that data works for students and families. That’s our north star. Undergirding that, at DQC we have four priorities that help us map the way to that north star.

We believe measuring what matters, making data use possible, being transparent and earning trust, and ensuring access and protecting privacy are essential to empower people and fuel continuous improvement. These priorities guide our work as we strive to ensure data is used in service of student achievement.

Broadly from your perspective, what is the state of education today?

Jennifer: I’m thrilled to be in my new role because I think that it’s a promising time for education. States and schools have made great strides over the past number of years in collecting and using education data.

We’ve also talked extensively with parents and teachers, and overwhelmingly they say getting the right data at the right time allows them to help their students progress in school.

For the first time, policymakers, teachers, and parents alike are starting to see a clearer picture of how schools are performing, thereby empowering sounder education decision making at the state and local level – the kind of decision making that sets students up for success.

Well, congratulations on your new role! I hope you’re settling in nicely. Do you have a couple of things you’re excited about in the year to come?

Jennifer: There are a several issues and trends I plan to keep my eyes on in the year ahead. Some things at the top of my list are the release of new accountability systems being developed under ESSA, preparation of students for the workforce, and personalized learning. I anticipate that safe and effective data use will be at the center of these conversations and will continue to be critical as we strive to improve student learning.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com