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Improving Outcomes for Arkansas Students (Jerry Jones Commentary)

3 min read

In my professional life, I’ve spent the past 20 years working to help organizations better leverage data to deliver innovative products and meaningful experiences. As a product of the educational system in Arkansas, a parent, concerned citizen and now a board member at ForwARd Arkansas, finding ways to apply my expertise to the public education sector has always been a welcome passion project for me. My mother was a public school teacher in Bentonville for decades, my two sisters were educators and I married a teacher — their commitment to students is something I always admired.

Again and again, my experiences confirm that successful businesses use data-informed decisions to drive change, accomplish goals and produce results. Indeed, for a business not to be actively engaged in the collection and analysis of data-driven operational and customer insights in this day and age would be unthinkable, unprofitable and certainly unsustainable. When data collection and analysis are integrated and aligned across divisions and departments, the entire organization benefits.

Our work to increase broadband access for all K-12 schools in the state was a game-changer. However, that project also uncovered some serious deficiencies: We need to improve systems that break down silos and allow agencies to share information and learn from each other to improve educational outcomes. The sad truth is that, right now, we are not doing a very good job of setting our schools, educators and students up for success.

If we want our students to be able to effectively compete in the global market for jobs, we must dramatically improve educational outcomes in our state and consistently make informed and smart decisions on education policy.

Too often, resources are not finding their way to those who need them most. We’re pouring funds into programs that are not working — many times because leaders and policymakers are not armed with the data they need to make informed decisions. Imagine an Arkansas where all of our schools are given the information, resources and tools they need to succeed, where we can create policies that support students in the classroom and beyond because we have the data to understand whether or not our investments are at the right level and in the right place.

Since the mid-2000s, the Arkansas Department of Education has had a quality longitudinal data system that tracks school-, district- and state-level attributes and outcomes for K-12 education. Earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s transformational legislation to align this K-12 data system at the ADE with pre-K data was signed into law, something that was desperately needed. But access to quality, integrated data that extends from pre-K through postsecondary education/training and workforce participation still does not exist in Arkansas at a granular level as it does in other states.

At ForwARd Arkansas’ second annual Data & Policy Symposium in September, business, government and educational stakeholders came together to discuss how to best leverage the data we have to create policies that will strengthen the educator pipeline, bolster student employability and increase access to high-quality pre-K. More than 100 people, from across sectors, were in the room — and I took it as a great first step in breaking down the silos between business, government and educators, and moving us toward a more effective use of data in order to help students succeed.

My mother was always willing to go the extra mile. She supported her students and pushed them to succeed. What will you do to better support Arkansas students? Calling for a system to better share robust data that will allow stakeholders to better serve students is imperative and needed now.

I encourage those who care about Arkansas schools and students to call upon our state’s agency leaders and policymakers to agree to share their data, move forward with legislation, and appropriate the funds needed to develop a quality longitudinal data system that spans the entire cradle-to-career continuum.

What’s gained from such a resource has enormous potential to improve student learning outcomes and increase operational efficiencies and accountability. Now, that’s what I call a meaningful return on investment.

Jerry Jones is a member of the ForwARd Arkansas board and is executive vice president and chief legal and ethics officer of LiveRamp, an enterprise customer management software firm.
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