Data and Leadership: Saving Education

education_image_03.jpg There is a scramble going on in the philanthropic sector to understand how to successfully address a range of issues relating to education - saving public schools, promoting charter schools, improving high school graduation rates, college readiness, access and success, and the like.

Conferences, white papers, symposiums - we're seeing all the usual information media and channels for sharing what's being done. Still no comprehensive knowledge networking web site that consolidates all the research and ideas that foundations (read: Gates) have been pouring millions into for the past decade, but that's a topic for another day.

With so much information out there, why is it that most professionals in the sector still can make no sense of what really works, and what to invest in?

No one seems to have an answer, but a recent article in Fast Company, by Jeff Chu, September 2008, highlights one of the biggest possibilities: That fixing education is more a matter of good old-fashioned management than anything else - having timely information you need to make management decisions, making them boldly, and executing on them effectively.

The article tells the story of Michele Rhee, the 38-year old chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, who emphasizes what every good manager knows, that you have to have the data in order to manage.

"Every aspect of [Rhee's] plan is rooted in data, from overhauling and streamlining DCPS's 27 uncoordinated information management systems to creating a culture of accountability for student performance," according to the article.

Our sector is data starved, and education is no exception. So how is Rhee magically producing data that others don't have, but that is needed to manage the school system?

She is getting foundations, like the CityBridge Foundation and Fannie Mae, to fund projects that allow her to hire the kind of resources a business would hire to get its data together. According to the article, Fannie Mae gave $1 million to allow Rhee to "hire forensic auditors to get a handle on the district's chaotic balance sheet."

To have accountability, you have to count. Fundamental to her success, according to Rhee, is the No Child Left Behind legislation - it's not about politics, Rhee simply needs the data that NCLB generates in order to do her job.

When you get leadership on top of good management, as appears to be the case with Rhee and with the mayor who is backing her, Adrian Fenty, evidence suggests you get results. Our sector is not likely to find any one model or answer, but foundation leaders will do well to invest in data and the leadership that uses it well.

Carla E. Dearing

Posted at 1:01 AM, Sep 01, 2008 in Cross-Sectoral Strategies | Education | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment