Even as education is wrangling with the impact of the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind Act waiver gambit, the power of data in shaking up education remains more prominent than ever. From news about the success of the Gates Foundation’s abandoned small high school initiative, to the possible benefits of school choice in keeping kids off the path to prison, to the streams of information on the consequences of low-quality teaching, we are getting more information needed to put an end to the kind of failed practices that have hurt far too many kids for too long.

In this Best of Dropout Nation from March 2011, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains how data is changing out assumptions about American public education and how it will continue to disrupt status quo thinking. Read, consider, and offer your own thoughts.

Jerry Yang and David Filo didn’t know what they were doing two decades ago to catalog all the Web sites in the nascent World Wide Web. But what they did was unleashing new forms of data and new approaches to analysis that would revolutionize how we shop, conduct business, buy homes and live our lives. This disruptive power is seen each day as firms such as Amazon ease our shopping (and makes it easier for firms to tickle our proverbial fancies with their wares), search engine such Google (and to a lesser extent, Microsoft’s Bing and Yang and Filo’s Yahoo) to ease the scouring for what was once hard to find information, and countless organizations use the ‘Net for organizing support for their positions or, as in the case of WikiLeaks, reveal black box secrets for all to see. Traditional gatekeepers such as big-box retailers, airlines and old-school media outlets have lost their power to control pricing and the packaging of content (and in the case of weak firms such as Circuit City and Knight-Ridder) have been forced out of business altogether as new players that use the Web as their base technology have taken advantage of the new world.

This disruptive power of data is now beginning to rear its head in education, forcing all the players within it to change the way they operate schools and educate all of our children — reducing the influence of teachers unions, university schools of education and others who have long dominated education decision-making. And that is a good thing. It is high time that American public education embrace the ability of data to shed light on problems, force discussions that have often been stifled (if not outright ignored) and ease pathways to solutions that those who have been the gatekeepers do not want. But we will have to take further steps to make the data more-useful to all players in education — especially our parents, who are demanding (and deserve) to be the consumers and lead decision-makers in schools.

As with the rest of the world, the World Wide Web has played a role in making school data more available to policymakers, school operators, teachers and families alike. Efforts by organizations such as GreatSchools.org (a spinoff of bond rating agency Standard & Poor’s earlier effort to evaluate school spending) has at least been helpful in pushing for greater availability of information on school performance.

But the moves that have made data disruptive in education came earlier than the development of Hypertext Markup Language by Tim Berners-Lee. Starting in the 1970s, the concerns of southern governors such as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and chambers of commerce helped foster the modern school reform movement; the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 by the Reagan Administration, which further raised the alarm about the quality of education in America’s schools, led to other governors to begin taking the first steps towards improving teacher quality (through certification of instructors) and the development of the first curricula standards. By 1986, some 25o commissions and panels were working on school reform, according to Susan Fuhrman (now president of Teachers College).

One of the efforts that came out of all this was the second wave of standardized testing, with students taking more-rigorous exams in earlier grades. The data from those tests began giving policymakers and even some parents a sense of how woeful America’s students were being educated. But the raw scores weren’t enough. A critical question that was not yet answered was how well were students progressing over time, as they moved from grade to grade and from one teacher to another. There were also questions about the role of teachers and schools in student achievement. One researcher, William Sanders, began answering these questions during his time in Tennessee through the development of what would become Value-Added Assessment. Sanders work (which included the development of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, the nation’s first systemic effort at measuring student, school and teacher performance) along with the work of Eric Hanushek (now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution), began to reveal the critical role of teacher quality in education and the need to overhaul how we recruit, train and compensate teachers.

The second step came during the 1990s courtesy of the first wave of curriculum standards development, which forced a change in how tests were given. Once purely diagnostics or simple measures of performance, states began to use tests as ways to hold schools accountable for student achievement — especially among poor and minority students. By 2000, 39 states were using consequence-based testing and accountability, according to a Harvard Journal on Legislation report co-authored by Sandy Kress, Stephanie Zeckmann and Matthew Schmitten. This, along with the use of value-added assessment, would lead to new data on the achievement gaps between whites, blacks and Latinos, between middle class and poor students, and between young men and women. This approach to data, which would be made federal policy thanks to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, would not only force states and districts to figure out how to reform education for all children, but even rally together a new generation of school reformers.

The final wave came after the passage of No Child, thanks to its provision that graduation rates had to be considered alongside test scores as critical measures of student achievement. For years, states and districts got away with inflating their graduation rates by simply dividing the number of students who graduated from high school from the number in junior or senior years. But researchers such as now-University of Arkansas education professor Jay P. Greene, Schott Foundation’s Michael Holzman, and Chris Swanson (now at the education research unit of the parent of Education Week) took a hard look at the numbers and began looking at the progress of students throughout their entire high school career (from leaving 8th grade to graduation). Other researchers, including Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins took it further and looked at how many kids were leaving school before even reaching senior year of high school. Their work on graduation rates and the promoting power of schools exposed the low quality of education provided in our high schools, identified the dropout factories (and by extension, failure mills in earlier grades) that were the major sources of academic failure, and forced states to begin looking at the poor instruction and curricula given to kids long before they reached high school. Their work also forced states to finally be honest in their graduation rate reporting.

The disruptive force of these new sources and ways of analyzing data cannot be overstated. Value-added data on the long-term performance of teachers is what informs the Race to the Top initiative and efforts to replace traditional (and abysmal) forms of subjective evaluation for objective forms of performance management. The impact of data can be seen in the fact that the American Federation of Teachers is now accepting the use of test score data in evaluating teachers (and in supporting milder forms of the kind of quick dismissals of laggard teachers).

It is Balfanz’s work on promoting power that has led to efforts by states and school districts to create early warning indicators that show when kids are falling behind and on the way to dropping out of school. And it is the data on graduation rates and achievement gaps that are now fueling Parent Power movements in states such as Connecticut and California, leading to the creation of Parent Trigger laws that allow families to overhaul the schools their kids attend, and foster new forms of school choice.

The impact of data can also be seen in the participation of political leaders and others in conversations about the reform of American public education. No longer are governors, state legislatures and mayors willing to simply stand by while teachers unions, school superintendents and school boards at the state and local level make policy decisions largely on their own. While this may annoy the Randi Weingartens, Dennis Van Roekels and Diane Ravitches in the status quo, the reality is that education plays far too critical a role in the nation’s economic and social future to be left to so-called experts who have done little and achieved less.

All of this is wonderful. But it isn’t enough. As Dropout Nation noted in December, school data most school data and analysis remains a black box affair, unavailable for easy use by parents, policymakers and even teachers and principals for making smart decisions. Far too many school data systems leave out useful information, explain it in the kind of jargon most parents and laymen cannot understand, or are organized in ways that are useful to no one. Save for California and Indiana, most states do a poor job of defining and reporting chronic truancy — a data point critical in finding out which kids are on the path to dropping out. School spending data that would allow principals to actually serve as true managers of schools and help families learn what they are actually getting for their school dollar is largely non-existent. And even information on the academic progress of English Language Learning students in learning English and moving into regular classroom (and avoiding the path to academic failure) is poorly tracked and reported.

American public education’s penchant for using education for compliance with state and federal is one reason why these data challenges still exist. The low quality of current data systems at the district level is another; in California, for example, there are still districts using Excel spreadsheets to track data that needs to be handled with far-superior software and data systems. There is also the reality that school districts are not private-sector corporations and thus, not required to actually make data easy to use; since families are not considered customers or lead decision-makers in education, districts feel no obligation to make information easier to use.

Then there is the resistance to the use (and even the very existence) of data from defenders of traditional public education. From where they sit, the use of data by families and politicians to hold all players in education accountable for laggard instruction, turgid curriculum and antiquated practices and rules (tenure and degree- and seniority-based pay scales) is both a threat and a promise. The threat is to what remains of their influence over education policy; the promise is to the long-held belief that education decisions should be left to experts alone. As seen in the debate over the use of value-added data in evaluating teachers, they use the reality that data isn’t perfect or always all-encompassing to beat back efforts to expand its use in all aspects of education. Considering that defenders of the status quo demand more engagement from families and communities in schools, this opposition to using and disseminating data is ridiculous and shameful.

But at the end of the day, their opposition will be of little use. You can’t stop a fast-moving train with broken breaks. And data is exactly that. Once information becomes available, those who consume it will demand more. Parents are going to ask for more information, not only on the academic progress of their students and the effectiveness of schools, but even individual data on teacher performance. Considering that a child can go from a high-quality teacher to a low-quality one just by crossing the hallway (and that the quality of instruction varies from classroom to classroom), there will be greater demand or more data on teachers of the kind made available by the Los Angeles Times in its award-winning series last year. It will also force greater scrutiny of the work school districts do in recruiting and evaluating them.

But we cannot count just on the force of data alone. We will need more private-sector and nonprofit players to get into the business of aggregating data and breaking it down into usable chunks. And we will need community-based family information centers that can help families and communities to understand what the data means for kids and for their neighborhoods. These two efforts would help fulfill the Five Codes of Parent Power I have discussed earlier this week on the Dropout Nation Podcast, force teachers and other players to end the anti-intellectualism that plagues American public education, and ultimately make data even more disruptive in education. And ultimately, help replace dropout factories and failure mills with schools fit for our children and their futures.