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IT Infrastructure & Management

Fragmented Data Systems a Barrier to Better Schools, Experts Say

By Katie Ash — March 11, 2013 7 min read
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The fragmented nature of data systems in school districts, a lack of common data standards across states, and the financial challenges of providing professional development to data users in schools combine to leave many districts and states struggling to provide meaningful, real-time data about student performance to educators.

And that reality, experts say, is a major barrier for districts working to transform themselves into organizations that maximize the effectiveness of new technologies.

“It’s hard to get machines to talk to one another,” says Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies and the founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, in Washington.

“A lot of school data are siloed. You may have academic-performance data in one place, administrative data someplace else, and disciplinary data somewhere else,” he says.

Complying with privacy laws around student data, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, also presents challenges, he says.

While protecting student information and providing educators with meaningful, timely data are important goals, “right now the balance is skewed very much in favor of privacy over data-sharing, so we’re not able to get the benefits that would come from integrating information,” he says.

Steps to Sharing

Kathleen Berry, the coordinator of research, evaluation, and assessment for the Monroe County Intermediate School District in Michigan—which provides special education and professional development services to nine districts, two charter schools, and 15 private schools in the county—says her state is a prime example of how hard it can be to share data between districts. That difficulty impedes comparisons of instructional techniques and keeps teachers from accessing records for students who have transferred from elsewhere in the state.

“Through the mid-1990s, each school district really operated independently of each other,” says Berry. Because of that local control, districts built their own data systems, creating a hodgepodge of data warehouses, she says.

In 2009, the state received an $11.6 million federal grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help bridge the gaps in the data warehouses that districts used and facilitate information-sharing across districts. Under the grant, the districts were broken into eight consortia, each of which held face-to-face meetings with members to talk about the challenges of their different data systems.


The grant specifically focused on districts’ assessment-data warehouses, and while it did not provide money for all members of each consortium to switch to the same system, it did help establish such systems in districts that did not have their own assessment-data warehouses previously, says Berry.

“Even though we couldn’t share a lot of actual data, the information about what strategies people are using—professional development or user supports—was hugely helpful and has saved some time and money,” she says.

The grant also required districts to provide at least four days of professional development over the course of two years for teachers to learn how to interpret and use the data they had access to.

However, when it came to actually facilitating data exchange between districts, not much progress was made, Berry says.

“We found out almost immediately that this would prove to be somewhat challenging” to accomplish district-to-district data-sharing with the amount of money available, she says.

The state has also taken steps on its own to help facilitate information-sharing, says Berry, by creating a school data portal that provides information to the public and—through a password-protected login—more detailed information about individual students to teachers.

But even though Michigan has a set of criteria for data standards, many districts do not have the money for a dedicated data manager, so inputting the data into the system often falls to staff members who do not have formal training in that area, says Berry.

“They do what they think is right, or what they’ve always done, and we end up with ten different ways to code an excused absence,” she says.

Educators in Texas have similar challenges at the district level, says Melody Parrish, the director of statewide education data systems for the Texas Education Agency.

As the system now stands, teachers have to log in to multiple systems to see different kinds of data, and they can’t link the data in one silo to the contents of another, making it difficult to analyze the information in meaningful ways, she says. For example, the system cannot compare attendance data with academic-performance data to predict which students may be at risk of falling behind.

Rolling Out a System

But the state is moving to a new statewide data system that will produce feedback reports that can integrate such data for teachers, Parrish says.

In addition, districts can opt to receive access to teacher dashboards that link educators to a collection of reports about student academic performance, she says.

“We went out and ... gathered information on what teachers and campus administrators and district administrators would need” in order to develop the dashboards, says Parrish. Teachers expressed a desire for usable, real-time data that would help them be able to group and differentiate instruction for their students, she says.

The system, which is being piloted in a handful of Texas districts, will be rolled out statewide over the next three or four years.

The teacher dashboards have been developed in partnership with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, based in Austin, Texas, which rolled out its Ed-Fi data standards in July 2011 to help standardize data across districts and states. Fourteen states have committed to adopting the Ed-Fi standards so far, says Lori M. Fey, the president of the Ed-Fi Alliance.

The Ed-Fi data standards are aligned to the common education data standards developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, which released the third version of the standards in January 2013. The common education data standards, or CEDS, are helping facilitate data-sharing across districts in Georgia and potentially across states, says Bob Swiggum, the chief information officer for the Georgia education department.

Swiggum has earned recognition in the education data sector for building a data “tunnel” that allows teachers in districts throughout Georgia to access state-level data and reports analyzing data across districts, without ever having to log in to more than one system. The state-level reports provide detailed feedback to teachers about their own classrooms as well as how their students compare with students in other schools and districts in the state.

Before the creation of the tunnel, only 300 out of a potential 150,000 users were engaging with the statewide data system, says Swiggum. Now, that number is about 60,000.

The tunnel automatically transfers the educators’ login information to the state system, verifying their credentials and levels of access to data, and allowing those educators to enter the state system without having to go through a second login process.

In addition, the tunnel mirrors the look and feel of the district-level data system so that even though educators leave their district systems to view the state-level reports, it doesn’t feel as if they are navigating to an entirely new system, Swiggum says.

To build the tunnel, Swiggum worked with 12 different vendors that provide data services to Georgia districts to add several lines of code to trigger the login authentication and website mirroring.

The state has added tools within its system—based on feedback from educators about what they would find most helpful—to include growth models, longitudinal data, individualized education programs for students, and tools to link resources to the Common Core State Standards.

Listening to feedback from educators was essential in creating the solution, Swiggum says.

“You have to know who your audience is and listen to your audience to find out what they want,” he says.

State Data Connections

Swiggum is also working to connect data between states. The Southeast Education Data Exchange, or SEED, relies on CEDS—the common data standards—to share information in member states.

Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina are piloting the project, which matches 85 different data fields between states to exchange student information, allowing teachers to retrieve information and records quickly for a student who transfers from a district in one state to a district in another.

Because there are no easy ways to share data across states, educators are not getting a full picture of student performance, says Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy initiatives for the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, which works to increase the availability of high-quality education data to improve student achievement.

For instance, in many states, a large percentage of students go to college out of state, which means that without linking data between states, the states cannot link K-12 data to those students’ postsecondary performance, Kowalski says.

“It’s really hard to get 50 states to come to some sort of agreement on their own,” she says. “There’s going to need to be funding or some tie-in to something that’s happening federally” to drive the creation of a cross-state solution.


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