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Huge Databases Offer a Research Gold Mine — and Privacy Worries

As states create warehouses of information about students, scholars see opportunities to assess the effectiveness of education

Last month several news organizations reported on the emergence of "fusion centers" — vast data clearinghouses, operated by state law-enforcement agencies, that can instantly call up key personal information on anyone: telephone numbers, insurance records, family ties, and much more.

Architects of the fusion centers say they are a long-overdue tool for combatting crime and terrorism. But critics warn that the centers are a menace to privacy and say they have been constructed at the state level to avoid the scrutiny that a single federal data system would attract.

"Being able to follow students longitudinally is the key to any sophisticated understanding of how colleges are doing and what's happening to students," says Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Last month Mr. Bailey joined two dozen other scholars at a conference in Washington convened by the National Academies and the American Educational Research Association. The scholars there — many of whom have used state databases in their own research — want to encourage the development of more state data centers. They did not belittle the privacy question, however. It would only take one serious breach of anonymity, several participants said, to destroy the public trust that sustains the new databases.

"We are far from having exhausted the important research questions that can be addressed with these types of data," Mr. Bailey said during the conference. "Even if we doubled or tripled our capacity at the Community College Research Center, we couldn't possibly deal with all of the issues that these data could be used for."

In an influential 2005 study, one of Mr. Bailey's Teachers College colleagues used a large database in Washington State to look at the wages of nontraditional students several years after they entered community college. That study found that for students who begin community college at the age of 25 or older, there is a positive "tipping point": After a student earns 10 or more college credits, future wages tend to improve, even if the student never earns a degree. Below that threshold, community college does not seem to do these students much economic good. That pattern would have been hard to detect without a large-scale data system like Washington's.

Despite this potential analytic power, many states have shied away from creating robust data systems. That has partly to do with a lack of resources and expertise, Mr. Bailey says. But it also has to do with nervousness about federal and state privacy laws.

Mr. Bailey hopes that the federal government will do more to prod states to take action — and especially to create better links between their school databases and their postsecondary databases. Since 2002 the Education Department has given states grants totaling around $40-million per year to improve their data systems. And since 2005, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has supported a coalition known as the Data Quality Campaign, which encourages states to create unified databases of student achievement.

"Even if Ferpa did not exist, many of these challenges would still be with us," Mr. Bailey says. "Colleges' IT systems aren't set up to analyze this stuff. The data generally aren't stored in a way that's ideal for research, because that's not the purpose for which the system was designed. The resources and the time that it takes the staff of these places to comply with requests from researchers — those things are not necessarily Ferpa-related."

"We have not had the linkages to K-12 that we hoped we would have," says William E. Knight, director of institutional research at Bowling Green State University. "The Ohio Department of Education simply hasn't wanted to do it."

Mr. Knight and Mr. Bailey both say they hope that the Ferpa revisions and the apparent success of the Florida system will help overcome some of the resistance in Ohio and other states to creating broader data centers.

A final barrier, cited by Mr. Bailey and several other scholars at the National Academies conference: No matter how strong or weak a state's data system might be, outside researchers need to gain the trust and respect of local officials before they can tap into the data.

"You have to realize that these are public officials, and it takes a lot of courage for them to make public some of these numbers," Mr. Bailey says. "We always try to explain that we're there as partners and we want to help them answer questions that are important to them." (Mr. Sellers says that he and his colleagues in Florida insist on such an approach; if a researcher comes to them with a project that seems irrelevant to Florida public policy, it will probably be rejected.)

"Our job is to use these numbers to help colleges improve what they're doing," Mr. Bailey continues. "Not to judge them or to somehow expose them as incompetent. On the other hand, our job isn't to explain away bad numbers, either. So it's a balancing act."

 the article "Huge Databases Offer a Research Gold Mine — and Privacy Worries" was published on may 5th in "The Chronicle of Higher Education"

Published Monday, Dec. 15, 2008