Data=Influence: Information Helps Shape Perceptions and Policies

By McDonald, Sister Dale | Momentum, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

Data=Influence: Information Helps Shape Perceptions and Policies


McDonald, Sister Dale, Momentum


Information is a powerful tool that can be used for shaping perceptions and policies pertaining to education in general, and Catholic education in particular. Reliance on data has become a significant part of the national education agenda, fueled in part by the U.S. Department of Education's insistence on standards, accountability for results and scientifically based practice. Obtaining good information, based on reliable and verifiable national-level data, is a task that requires acumen, persistence and significant resources in terms of dollars and personnel.

Data are used in many ways: government agencies use data to assist with the formulation of policy decisions and the writing of legislation; researchers use data to conduct analyses of education-related topics and to develop trend lines; pollsters use data to decipher-and sometimes influence-public opinion for and against issues; mass media use data to inform the public about the state of education in the United States.

Like Scripture, data can be interpreted and misused to bolster competing arguments. Participation in data-gathering processes, commendable as it is, is but a first step. Learning how to interpret and use data effectively are skills that should be developed as part of the professional portfolio of all educators.

Practical Benefits

Judicious use of reliable data provides many practical benefits for Catholic educators, their students and the public. Educators use the results of scientifically based studies to inform their practice and improve student instruction and outcomes. In addition to the focused surveys conducted by NCEA, many of the federal studies conducted by agencies of the federal government help to dispel myths such as elitism, segregation and lack of accountability of private schools. Data gathered and analyzed by independent agencies help all citizens to understand and appreciate the role of private and religious schools and their contributions to the common good. Likewise, good data help promote productive internal and public dialog about the benefits of pluralism and choice in schooling and create momentum for building common ground around education policy to promote quality education for all students.

On the national level, data have been used in lobbying for the equitable participation of private school students and teachers in federal education programs and to analyze the effectiveness of policies and regulations pertaining to programs such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Serving Students with Disabilities

Because no reliable national data existed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a survey of diocesan school offices to determine the extent to which Catholic schools served students with disabilities. The resulting information demonstrated to Congress that Catholic schools do serve such students (7 percent of all students have a diagnosed disability), as well as the difficulty in accessing evaluations and special education services under IDEA (fewer than 1 percent of diagnosed students received IDEA services). Such data helped to make the case in the reauthorization of IDEA 2004 for more specific language in the law that strengthens the requirements for the equitable participation of students with disabilities whose parents choose a private school.

When the education budget proposal from the White House sought to terminate or dramatically cut several key NCLB programs widely used by Catholic schools, a survey conducted by the private-school community, under the auspices of the Council For American Private Education, was used to provide data that demonstrated the value and effectiveness of three programs (Title U-D-Education Technology, Title FV-A-Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities and Title V-A-Innovative Programs) for private school students and teachers. Although Congress has not finalized the education budget for 2006 yet, there are indications that these programs will be funded.

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