iStock_000011868479MediumPennsylvania First Lady Susan Corbett is on a mission. Armed with observations gathered in multiple site visits across Pennsylvania, she has focused her time and attention on improving outcomes for middle schools students. How? By listening to education data as a sort of heartbeat that can indicate when kids need help.

In 2012, Mrs. Corbett launched Pennsylvania’s “Opening Doors” initiative, based on the research of Dr. Robert Balfanz. What Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, has found is that a handful of indicators during middle school – the period most often glanced over in school reform efforts– are key to predicting whether or not children will ultimately make it to high school graduation or not.

Mrs. Corbett has spent the year since the Opening Doors launch doing her own research. She has met with superintendents, teachers and students in schools across the state, and observed intervention programs that work. Last week, she announced the next steps that she and the Pennsylvania Department of Education are taking to intervene in children’s success early. Among them is the rollout of a secure, web-based system that aggregates student success indicators including academic progress, attendance and behavior reports for teachers. The right combination of indicators (as identified by Balfanz’s research) will trigger flags that a student may be at risk. Most importantly, the system is also designed to provide information about public and private-based intervention services that can help students stay on track, enabling an educator to quickly find the best option for a student.

I attended the forum where Mrs. Corbett announced the next phase of Opening Doors. I came away from the event reenergized. It’s always motivating to have a group of dedicated educators in a room together tackling tough issues, but the most memorable parts of the day didn’t involve adults. They involved children and their stories.

Those of us who advocate for widespread use of data tools do not do it because we love ones and zeros. We do it because we believe that tools that sift and serve data to teachers can help them to reach every child—gifted, struggling or somewhere in the vast middle. We maintain this belief as a guiding principle. But sometimes the potential of education data to make a difference becomes even more vivid. Last week, we reviewed a Frontline story about Omarina Cabrera, a child who very nearly fell off track when her family got evicted during her sixth grade year. Omarina’s teachers reviewed the indicators and got her the help she needed. The story was a powerful reminder: So often children like Omarina cannot speak up for themselves, for whatever reason. They are young; they are overwhelmed; they are embarrassed. It’s our obligation to use every means we have, including the data, to recognize the signals, see the need, and reach out to lend a hand.

Lori Fey is president of the Ed-Fi Alliance. If you’re a K-12 educator with a strong point of view on how data could be—or is—used to make a difference for kids in the classroom, the Ed-Fi team would love to hear from you. Email to share your story!

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