Turning Big Data into Smart Data

This year was the third year in a row that our nation remained on pace to meet the GradNation Campaign goal of a 90% graduation rate by 2020. According to the 2015 Annual Update of Building a Grad Nation, the national high school graduation rate is currently at 81.4%. How did our nation accomplish this incredible feat? Data consistently shows that our country's path towards this 81.4% has been filled with support from various places—from those caring teachers who go the extra mile to help students, to City Year and AmeriCorps volunteers, to even charitable programs like Feeding America that provide benefits to children in need.

But are there other factors we might not be looking at?

Looking only at education data fails to consider other factors that might be important to this conversation. With the amount of data that is available in almost every sphere and industry today, it's possible to find intersections between different policy fields and education. Looking outside the box can help us better understand the issues that are affecting our nation's schools.

Take environmental policy, for example. On the surface, it's hard to find the correlation between our nation's environmental practices and the education sphere, but stepping back and viewing the issues from another angle can help us evaluate the commonalities and connections that these two fields share. For example, is there a connection between child asthma—which can affect a student's attendance in school—and the quality of air in that school district? Would encouraging the Environmental Protection Agency to issue stricter standards on smog and air pollution help decrease the rate of asthma cases each year (and subsequently, decrease the likelihood of students skipping school for health reasons)?

What about climate change? If Congress addressed climate change issues—like greenhouse gas emissions or the amount of sediment runoff that washes into our ocean, which is known to increase the water temperatures—would that affect the amount of snowstorms per year in our country (and thus, influencing the number of snow days in each school district)?

Let's look at food policy. Each year, 45 million low-income Americans use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which gives beneficiaries $4 each day for food assistance. Would increasing SNAP by even $1 affect the school performance of a student whose family depends on this program? What about food production? The World Food Programme has estimated that the risk of hunger and malnutrition could increase up to 20% by 2050 if measures are not taken to improve the resiliency of our food systems. Would finding new innovative solutions for food production and distribution affect the amount and quality of our food (and thus, subsequently affect the nutritional quality of food a student receives through his or her school's free lunch program)?

The data is out there, but finding these correlations can get tricky. We need to turn big data smarter to help us see the holistic picture. While it's important to understand the difference between correlation and causation, finding new innovations and solutions using these data-backed approaches can be the key to reaching that 90% high school graduation rate by 2020.

Also, if you’re a tech and data savvy person, consider looking into AT&T’s Data for Diplomas competition.  You might just make our nation’s schools better (and win cash prizes too).