Using Data to Make Gains: Lessons from a Former Secretary of Education

by | Jun 12, 2019 | Education

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Often the conversation about higher education starts at the college level. But there are many lessons that colleges and universities can learn from the elementary and high school models when it comes to building a successful program.

As far as student success, that groundwork could be laid as early as pre-Kindergarten. In his book, How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education, Arne Duncan makes the case that schools need to shift from their current K-12 model to a PK-14 model to best keep up with a twenty-first-century economy, and they also need to make more data-driven decisions. Here are some of the takeaways from his book.

Data can make a difference

Arne Duncan rose quickly through the administrative ranks in Chicago, eventually serving seven and a half years as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. During that time, he worked with the Consortium on School Research, a group of researchers that served as an objective observer of Chicago’s public schools, studying issues, gathering data, and offering periodic updates on their findings.

The book is filled with anecdotes of his experiences in schools before and during his time as Secretary of Education, when he often used data to inform a decision. In one of his interviews with the mayor about the CEO position, Duncan says the mayor was curious about how he would use the Consortium’s findings. “Data doesn’t tell the whole truth,” Duncan said, “but it doesn’t lie. If we can use the Consortium’s data to figure how to spend our money in a smarter way, then we should.”

Acting on the data

One of the biggest problems the data uncovered during Duncan’s tenure as CEO was college readiness, as in, many students in Chicago were not prepared for college by the time they graduated high school. “They weren’t on a path for success in college; they weren’t even on a path for success in high school,” Duncan writes.

Each August, just before the start of the school year, the Consortium would make a presentation to top leaders in the school system. Though it could take years to gather data on topics like test results and graduation rates, Duncan writes, “The theory was we didn’t need to have the whole picture to start addressing problems.”

One year the Consortium presented data that showed too many students deemed “Proficient” in middle school by Illinois standards were not performing well on the ACT in high school, a predictor of college readiness. Essentially Illinois had lowered its state standards (as other states had done) to make sure it was meeting the requirements of No School Left Behind, rather than increasing its resources to improve performance.

Duncan led a push centered on another finding by the Consortium, which found that success as a freshman could predict high school success. Chicago Public Schools worked on making sure freshmen were showing up to school, and then if they were struggling, that they had support to help them avoid failing. Some of this support included teachers taking on groups of students they would monitor closely, as well as free after-school tutoring. The department also worked with students on submitting their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to make sure students – many of which lived below the poverty line – knew they could qualify for financial aid and college could be part of their future.

The changes worked, though as Duncan points out, the work is ongoing. A recent Stanford University study showed that, among other findings, in Chicago each successive Chicago Public Schools class is outperforming the class that came before.


Duncan ends his book with lessons learned from his experiences visiting exemplary schools. Among those lessons are a couple connected to issues in higher education. One is that he believes every high school student should graduate with some college credit, an industry certification, or both. “Graduating from high school is an important accomplishment,” Duncan writes, “but it’s insufficient by itself; the goal is to prepare every student for success either in college or the workplace.”

Relatedly, he says high schools need to do a better job of matching their graduates with colleges that are serious about graduating students just like them. These are issues colleges and universities are using data to try to solve.

Duncan’s book highlights many problems in the world of education, but often those problems are accompanied by possible solutions. Data and analytics can help achieve those solutions. The book ends with his goals to help the United States reverse its slipping trend in world education rankings. Those goals center on the higher education lessons mentioned above:

  • 100% of high school graduates need to be college- and career-ready
  • The United States needs to once again be a world leader in college graduation rates.

“The goal is never just to go to college and incur debt for no reason,” Duncan writes. “It is to graduate.”

That’s a higher ed goal that the data could help start solving as early as pre-K.

Education Technology



John Sucich
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