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Analytics expand school CIO role

Data-driven decisions require CIOs to help educators interpret and organize vast amount of information
When it comes to data analytics, Maribeth Luftglass,CIO at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, focuses on ensuring privacy of all student data. And, she adds, it should be a top concern for all CIOs. (Photo: Donnie Biggs, Fairfax County Schools)
When it comes to data analytics, Maribeth Luftglass,CIO at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, focuses on ensuring privacy of all student data. And, she adds, it should be a top concern for all CIOs. (Photo: Donnie Biggs, Fairfax County Schools)

Just a few years ago, CIOs—if they were involved in data analytics at all—would run a report, export it into an Excel document and create a chart or a graph to share with teachers and district leaders once a week, or at the end of each semester.

Now it’s all about creating systems that aggregate and sort data automatically, making it easier for educators to view crucial information every day.

“The CIO is really becoming more of a leadership position,” says Elizabeth Dabney, director of research and policy analysis at the Data Quality Campaign. “It’s not just an IT role—it’s having a very broad vision and a good understanding of the value of data in supporting education goals at the district and being able to communicate that.”

Since creating its first custom data dashboard in 2014, Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin has been in a constant push to develop easier ways for educators to analyze data pulled from all of its schools.

The district used to rely on the state’s WISEdash system, which is a data portal that uses “dashboards,” or visual collections of graphs and tables, to provide multiyear education data about Wisconsin schools.

But it was barely used, because it didn’t allow schools to really drill down into detailed data. So the Sun Prairie district joined a data consortium of local districts a few years ago and has been creating different custom dashboards with the help of a software company.

The most recent project: An early-warning system that identifies students at risk of not graduating high school. The system feeds data from 12 indicators—including attendance, grades and discipline—into an easy-to-use program so educators can provide extra support to at-risk students as early as middle school.

Educators would previously look at the risk indicators individually in WISEdash. The new system overlaps the data to show which students are most at risk.

“What we’ve seen is the need to get data into the hands of our teachers, and get that into their hands in real time so they can use that information for decision-making on an almost daily basis,” says Michael Mades, Sun Prairie’s director of technology.

Sun Prairie’s data transformation reflects changes in the day-to-day roles of CIOs and CTOs in many other districts. “I am not someone who is allowed to be in the background making sure that our infrastructure is working—that isn’t my job anymore,” says Tony Spence, chief information officer at Muskego-Norway School District, also in Wisconsin. “It’s on a much higher level. I spend most of my time making sure the data systems we have reflect the needs of the district.”

So how do CIOs keep up with the changing demands? Here’s what four CIOs and CTOs had to say about how data analytics is changing their jobs—and their districts.

CIO as data interpreter

CIOs say their role is increasingly that of a data interpreter—someone who bridges the gap between the technology department (or product vendor) and the academic and operational branches.

Mades, at Sun Prairie, says he speaks two languages. In meetings with principals, he talks in academic language about the kinds of data that can be generated to improve student achievement, for example. Then he goes back to his IT team and, in much more technical language, discusses the systems needed to track and analyze that data.

Mades is a member of both the academic and operational branches of the district, meaning he keeps tabs constantly on how every department uses data. “Part of my work in the meetings is to listen to what their needs are and then help our data system support those, whether that’s building new dashboards or modifying some of the reports,” Mades says.

Because Mades understands the problems leaders are trying to address, such as behavior, he can provide better analysis.

For example, if misbehavior reports increase at a school, he can help a principal determine if there’s a buildingwide issue or if the problem is limited to specific classrooms or teachers.

For Dane Conrad, director of technology at Hattiesburg School District in Mississippi, interpreting data involves working with the district’s academic evaluation specialist to determine what data should be collected and analyzed. He then turns to his vendors to identify programs or products that meet the specialist’s needs.

On a different day, he might help schools take better advantage of existing data—for example, showing them how to track and identify trends in teacher or student absences.

CIO as data visionary

Because systems change so quickly, analyzing systems is a task that requires being something of a data visionary. And it means understanding how data supports current district goals, and then thinking about what information its educators will need in five or 10 years.

Many CIOs are shifting their focus from managing district data servers and applications in-house to seeking out third-party vendors and cloud-based systems that automate analytics for them, says Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

For CIOs who don’t have time to develop relationships with vendors that can provide analytics services, Weeks suggests teaming with neighboring districts to seek out the best products via consortium procurement agreements.

When looking for new products, Conrad from Hattiesburg relies on an email Listserv for district technology leaders in the state. He also finds ideas from Linkedin and technology conferences.

Even if the end goal is to automate analysis—when data from different areas, such as attendance or behavior, is merged in ways that educators can easily access—selecting the right systems involves hands-on work.

“We want somebody who used a product, preferably somebody who has had it for a while, that can tell us their experiences and how the product fits into their flow and make sure their flow matches our flow and our needs,” Conrad says.

CIO as trainer-in-chief

Creating ways for teachers and administrators to study multiple kinds of data has opened up the problem-solving potential of analytics, says Rich Boettner, chief technology officer at Hilliard City Schools in Ohio.

But it’s also created a new role for CIOs: trainer-in-chief.

It’s important to make sure educators who may not have a background in analytics can use the information in meaningful ways, Boettner says.

Spence, at Muskego-Norway schools, trains teachers, academic coaches and certified staff during summer breaks and throughout the school year in how to use data systems and understand the numbers. Before CIOs can plan training or make sure data is being used effectively, however, they also must have a deep understanding of the data and how it supports district goals, Boettner says.

Boettner points to several main sources for professional development for himself and his staff: product vendors; internet resources, local and state networks for technology leaders, and conferences like ISTE.

CIO as silo regulator

And finally, after administrators understand how different departments use data, such understanding can help reduce or eliminate the data silos that exist within many districts.

At Muskego-Norway schools, Spence relies on a building-by-building plan that outlines how each school site is working on the district’s continuous improvement goals and which data will be used to support which efforts.

The plan gives Spence a clear understanding of what data each department collects, so he can ensure the systems are kept timely and up-to-date.

“Without the data plan it would be stabbing in the dark,” Spence says. “Instead we have a very specific goal about where we need to be.”

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Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.