We know political campaigns are driven by numbers. Since long before we started talking about data-driven decision-making as a key driver in education reform, political strategists had sophisticated models for crunching numbers and using them to determine where their money was spent, what their candidates said and where their rallies were held. But even though politics has always been a numbers game, in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, experts on both sides of the aisle are marveling about how the Obama campaign used innovative implementation strategies to take that game to the next level.

What does that “next level” look like? Broadly speaking, it is more precise, more dynamic and more individualized than its predecessors.  With a sophisticated strategy for using demographic data (including the 2010 census) to target resources and local campaign headquarters efficiently, Obama’s team built an unprecedented grass-roots level organization that generated support in key swing states.  They didn’t just crunch the numbers, they used them to develop a successful plan for turning them into votes.

As I read about the Obama campaign’s successful strategy, I was struck by the fact that several of the things they did very well are things that continue to serve as obstacles in implementing data-driven reforms at the state and local level in education. We know we should be using data to drive decision-making, but have we paid enough attention to our ground game?

Here are two areas where the Obama team’s strategy provides some insight into current challenges in education reform:

  1. They connected their databases– When the Obama team realized that their fundraising database wasn’t connected to other key systems (such as their voter registration database), they immediately went to work, connecting all systems with critical voter information that previously didn’t talk to each other. This probably sounds eerily familiar to anyone who has worked in a school district or state-level education agency.  Separate databases are the rule, not the exception and connecting data sets to actually learn from the numbers is often a time-consuming task assigned to someone who is probably already working over-capacity. States are making progress with efforts to build longitudinal data warehouses, but progress is slow. In the meantime, people on the ground who need to use the numbers to drive decisions and resources don’t have the access they need. Instead, with the task of managing schools filled with thousands of students and teachers, leaders have to continue to build inefficient systems and work-around processes around disconnected data. We are moving to change this, but are we moving quickly enough?
  2. They created an infrastructure in the field that supported their strategy– The Obama team developed sophisticated statistical models that allowed them to target groups of potential voters with extreme precision. With early warning systems and value-added growth data in student achievement, we are beginning to do the same in education. We are using data more precisely, and using it to plan instruction that targets specific students and specific skill sets. The critical difference is that the Obama team developed a new infrastructure in the field, designed to support that dynamic, individualized attention. They created small field offices in key counties, tight-knit teams of campaign staff trained specifically to provide the ground-level outreach to potential voters that their numbers told them was needed.  This is where education reform continues to lag behind. While we may be developing the systems and skills to help educators gather and analyze data, we have not made much progress in creating an infrastructure in public schools that allows us to use the data to drive action and resources quickly and creatively.

Education reform initiatives, like political campaigns, fail or succeed in their implementation. We should be looking for and learning from examples of successful implementation efforts wherever we can find them to ensure our ground game (like our president’s) is strong.