As more schools take on complex data projects to keep teachers and administrators informed about students’ academic progress, school technology officials need to make sure these undertakings reach their goals without taking on lives of their own.
School technology directors say it’s easy for such multipart projects to become overwhelming and financially problematic if precautions and guidelines aren’t in place. Staying focused is the key, says John L. Burke, the director of the department of technology consulting and communications systems for the 140,000-student Montgomery County school district in Maryland.
“With any kind of data project, you have to have a clear understanding of your desired results from the beginning,” he says. “Without having a clear picture upfront of what you’re trying to accomplish, you won’t be successful.”
Part of getting that clear picture is making sure you have input, before the project kicks off, from all the staff members with a stake in the outcome, says Norton Gusky, the coordinator of educational technology for the 4,600-student Fox Chapel Area School District near Pittsburgh.
“Go to the people who are going to use the data and ask them what they need and want. Get their feedback,” he advises. “The key is getting the right people at the table, asking the right questions, getting the necessary feedback, before you share it with a wider audience.”
Input from lots of groups can also prevent problems at the end of a data project, says Sharnell S. Jackson, the chief e-learning officer for the 435,000-student Chicago school district. “Teachers’ unions, principals’ associations—have those people on board on the front end,” she suggests. “It helps build capacity to support your efforts.”
Jackson points out, however, that school officials must have contingency plans for when data projects grow larger than expected—which they often do. A recent wireless project Jackson worked on aimed to get Palm Pilots and other hand-held devices into elementary schools to provide teachers with instant feedback from testing. Initially, the project was targeted at 123 elementary schools, but it grew rapidly to encompass nearly all 480 elementary schools in the district.
Asking and Answering
Experts caution that it’s not enough to have the human stakeholders talking to one another. Different data systems collecting different information in a school district must also be able to easily share information.
Montgomery County’s Burke is working on a project that will allow school officials to pull together a large amount of relevant student data and do complex analyses. “We’re trying to build a system where we can ask just about any question and be able to have the data available conveniently so we can answer the questions,” he says. That means district leaders want to be able to see what impact, for example, a long bus ride might have on student performance, or how specific professional-development activities for teachers affect student achievement.
Equally important is the ability to get data results back to teachers and administrators quickly.
“There’s nothing worse than getting student-performance data six weeks later, after teachers have lost the ability to make timely adjustments to instruction,” Burke says.
Gusky adds that the data must be user-friendly and educators must have the tools, the time, and the understanding to use it. “A lot of projects require teachers to do analysis and things they don’t have time to do,” he says. “Now we’re presenting it so that teachers can look at the data in a matter of seconds and have a snapshot of where they need to go.”
Of course, the underlying goal of any data project should be to ensure that the information being sought is useful.
“Making sure staff can turn that information into actions associated with knowledge is key,” Burke says. “If you don’t have that aligned, people will find themselves with lots of good data but nothing to do with it.”