Special Report
IT Management

Lack of Clear Standards, and Money, Trips Up District Tech Leaders on Interoperability

By Holly Kurtz — October 30, 2018 4 min read
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When they are talking about the challenges related to improving software interoperability in school districts, ed-tech leaders say their top problem is a lack of widely agreed-upon technical standards.

That’s according to more than 300 ed-tech leaders who responded to a fall 2018 online survey conducted by the Consortium for School Networking—which represents the nation’s chief technology officers. The survey was conducted in partnership with the Education Week Research Center.

Twenty-three percent of the leaders surveyed say that the lack of common standards is “extremely challenging” when it comes to improving data interoperability in their school districts. An additional 23 percent find it “very challenging.”

“I think clarity in the standards space is essential,” said Erin Mote of Project Unicorn, an initiative to promote interoperability in K-12 schools. “Part of what needs to happen is improving understanding of which standard does what, based on different use cases, because there’s not one standard for everything.”

The survey results suggest that many district technology leaders haven’t settled on a single, off-the-shelf solution to all of their data integration challenges. Or they at least aren’t aware of how many existing options might serve their needs.

Enlarge Chart

Experts say K-12 leaders should at least become aware of the various solutions that have gained traction, and what they can and can’t help with. The Ed-Fi data standard for interoperability, for example, consists of a set of technical rules that allow disparate data systems to connect with one another. Another standard is OneRoster, created by a Florida-based group of vendors, districts, and others known as the IMS Global Learning Consortium. Then there’s Clever, a company that charges vendors to manage the flow of information between schools and digital content providers.

Budgets, Tagging Are Concerns

The survey was conducted this fall among individuals who were their school districts’ most senior technology official. Only one response was tabulated per-district.

The results show that the budget constraints are the second-biggest interoperability concern after standards. Eighteen percent of ed-tech leaders surveyed say finances pose an “extremely challenging” barrier to improving system-to-system communication.

Poor tagging or categorization of digital content is the third-largest constraint. Fourteen percent say this concern is “extremely challenging.”

A number of worries about interoperability are more pronounced in lower-income districts, while others are bigger concerns in more affluent areas.

For example, the average district poverty rate among leaders who are extremely concerned about a lack of staff expertise is 53 percent. By comparison, the poverty rate is lower, 39 percent, among leaders whose efforts to improve interoperability are not at all hampered by staff expertise levels. It is possible that more impoverished areas are less able to attract as many qualified tech-focused staff.

About This Report

This Education Week examination of school districts’ pursuit of interoperability is the first of three special reports focused on the needs of K-12 district technology leaders, including chief technology officers. Each report in the series features exclusive results of a new, nationally representative survey of CTOs, conducted by the Consortium for School Networking, which represents K-12 district technology officials.

Parent resistance to interoperability is a bigger challenge in districts with more affluent populations. Among leaders who say they are extremely challenged by parent resistance, the school system poverty rate averages 38 percent. Among leaders who are not at all worried about parent pushback, the district poverty rate is 46 percent.

Help With State, Federal Reporting

In addition to posing questions about interoperability-related challenges, the survey asked about the degree to which improving interoperability could lead to 11 different desirable outcomes.

Leaders are most likely to report that improving interoperability will make state and federal reporting more efficient: More than half (56 percent) completely agree that better interoperability will help them attain this objective.

Leaders in low-poverty districts are less likely to say that enhancing interoperability will streamline state and federal reporting. Among leaders who completely disagree that improving interoperability will have this effect, the average poverty rate is 26 percent. The rate is 43 percent for those who completely agree.

Interoperability: Tips to Consider, Mistakes to Avoid

District chief technology officers who are trying to implement interoperability offered suggestions for peers in other school systems.

Click here to read their seven pieces of advice.

This is a trend: Leaders in lower-poverty districts are more skeptical than their peers from higher-poverty districts that interoperability will help attain eight of the 11 objectives listed on the survey.

In addition, rural leaders are less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to completely agree that interoperability will help them reach each of the 11 objectives listed on the survey.

Takeaway: While K-12 ed-tech leaders see a lack of common standards as the top barrier to achieving interoperability, they are also worried about budgets and tagging/categorization. Streamlined state and federal reporting is the most frequently-expected outcome of enhanced interoperability, with leaders from rural and more affluent districts expressing less confidence that improving interoperability will improve a variety of district operations.

Holly Yettick Kurtz
Holly Kurtz is the director of the Education Week Research Center, which frequently surveys ed-tech leaders as well as other district administrators and teachers. The center also produces analyses for Education Week’s special report, Quality Counts, and for its membership service EdWeek Market Brief. Follow Holly on Twitter @HollyYettick, and e-mail her at hyettick@epe.org.

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