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What's Your Data Integration Strategy?

Districts are using data warehouses and data dashboards to drive immediate decisions.
Teachers and principals at Valley Creek Elementary School in the McKinney (Texas) Independent School District review data for the upcoming school year last summer.

As districts collect increasing amounts of information on their students, from assessment scores to attendance records, many are finding new and better ways to use the information to catapult student achievement. They are implementing solutions such as data warehouses and data dashboards, electronic tools for storing, viewing and analyzing data, which provide immediate updates on everything relevant to their students, and adjusting instruction accordingly.

Collecting data is not new. What's new is how districts manage and use the data. Until the McKinney (Texas) Independent School District began eight years ago to build its first data warehouse, "we just had a lot of rogue databases and spreadsheets that existed on each campus," says Joe Miniscalco, the district's senior director of secondary curriculum and instruction. Now it has a sophisticated, centralized system that quickly provides detailed information to administrators and teachers about students' academic progress.

In 2004, SchoolNet launched an annual EduStat summit on data-driven decision-making in education. This year's conference of what now is EduStat University will be held July 25-27 in Virginia Beach, Va. Administrators and teachers will select from a variety of workshops focusing on using data to inform teaching and learning. There is no magic bullet in using data. Still, says Shawn Bay, "we really see schools turning around when they make lots of small decisions" on how to teach individual students effectively. Bay is the founder and CEO of eScholar, which provides data warehousing to districts and state education agencies. Those decisions include interventions and strategies that teachers put in place, for example, when attendance data for a student suddenly shows unexcused absences. "You can literally pivot on your heel in terms of what kinds of decisions and spending you are doing as a district," declares Ian Bryan, founder and president of Sensible City, a global communications strategy and outreach marketing company that represents various companies that help districts collect data to make decisions.

Administrators at the Cumberland County (N.C.) Schools peruse assessment data through the district's in-house data warehouse reporting tool, Data Trak, which can break down data districtwide and schoolwide.

Too Much Data?

A problem with today's education world, which has been inundated with all sorts of data-driven decision-making tools, can be that it has too much of a good thing. "There is a real risk that districts can be overloaded with data that doesn't help them drive student achievement," says Matthew D. Van Itallie, chief accountability officer in the Baltimore City (Md.) Public Schools, which recently implemented a new student performance system and data warehouse, with more comprehensive dashboards tied to the warehouse. The key, he says, is to "collect the right information, translate it through analytics to help make better decisions, and keep asking questions about what is going on in the schools, how much students are learning, and how to support them even more."

The right data should be focused on establishing the learner's digital profile, including assessments, curriculum content and each student's individual characteristics, says Jill Abbott, former strategic learning consultant for the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) Association and now an independent consultant with SIF. For example, she explains, content should fit students' grade levels. "Putting it in the context of a third-grader is not appropriate for somebody in the 10th grade," she says. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, cautions that educators might act too quickly based on the data they receive without paying attention to its sources, like assessments. "It's astonishing how little we actually talk about the quality of the assessments we use. People who are passionate about using data sometimes seem to put their common sense on the shelf," he asserts.

More important than the amount of data districts collect is what they do with it, says Neil T. Heffernan, associate professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He is helping administrators and teachers in the Worcester (Mass.) Public Schools and other nearby districts use data to drive their mathematics instruction through ASSISTments, a Web-based system he developed that provides immediate feedback on students' progress (see sidebar).

In the Classroom

What the McKinney (Texas) Independent School District does with its data is demonstrated at the classroom level. Teachers of core subjects in each of the district's five middle schools and three high schools meet every three weeks, often following scheduled assessments of their students. The teachers have the tests with them and can see how each student performed on each item, says Joe Miniscalco, senior director of secondary curriculum and instruction in the district. "They can compare kids in their own classes, across classes and across their grade level. They use the data to evaluate the items, the teaching and whether the students were prepared for that assessment," explains Miniscalco, who often sits in on the meetings. The teachers then talk about how to adjust their teaching to gain better results.

At one meeting Miniscalco attended in January, four eighth-grade science teachers at Evans Middle School talked about "why kids arrived at the answers they did, how their teaching looked different across their four classrooms, what they needed to do differently and how they were going to do some reteaching of what the students might not have learned," Miniscalco relates. That kind of review wasn't possible until the district began eight years ago to take a close look at the assessment process, followed by an upgrade five years ago of its student and business information systems, says Geoff Sanderson, senior director of compliance and standards. "We needed something that would provide us more information in real time that would allow us to evaluate our instruction and our curriculum," he says.

Before that, Miniscalco says, "classroom teachers maintained their own spreadsheets, and their data looked different from their principal's data. When we got assessment data from the state, we disaggregated it by hand. It was different on each campus, and with so many hands in the pot, that data was always corrupt."

Joe Miniscalco, senior director of secondary education at the McKinney ISD, is at a workshop called Offsite, where district administration, campus principals and assistant principals discuss education topics and teaching.

In 2003, the McKinney district contracted with an outside vendor, eScholar, to build its first data warehouse. "We recognized that we had separate systems that supported separate functions and thus generated different types of data. We wanted to be able to drop all that data in one location and make some simple connections," explains Sanderson. For example, he says, "if we could have human resources data in the same place as student achievement data, maybe we could see the relationship between teachers' years of service and student outcomes. Our system at the time didn't lend itself to being able to draw conclusions like that."

Sanderson says that the initial data warehouse "was cumbersome but pointed us in the right direction." Then in the 2006-2007 school year, the district upgraded its student information and business information systems and partnered with School- Net, which provided a new warehouse solution called a "data mart."

Now, at the end of each school day, the data mart receives automated uploads of data extracts from the district's student information system, including information on student demographics, attendance and discipline as well as academic achievement. "Everything you could probably come up with about a student is preserved there. It has a ton of information," says Sanderson.

It's all immediately accessible to teachers and administrators 24/7. Individual teachers have a data dashboard that they can personalize for the information they would like to have immediately when they sign on. "We're doing a lot better job with data than we were eight years ago," Sanderson declares.

Results of Using Data

In the Baltimore schools, Van Itallie cites a major district transformation initiated in the 2006-2007 school year by schools CEO Andres A. Alonso. The 2009-2010 Maryland School Assessment results showed student performance in reading and math at their highest levels ever for the district. City and state officials say that is due in part to districtwide reforms that gave schools greater autonomy over resources and more accountability for student achievements, a one-third reduction of the district's central office staff , and more involvement by parents and school communities in decision making. To advance those gains and help fulfill a commitment by Alonso to more data-driven decision making, Van Itallie—who has a background in education management, including a stint as deputy chief of staff in the District of Columbia Public Schools—is leading several new projects.

Among other things, the BCPS joined with SchoolNet last year to implement a new student performance system and data warehouse, with more comprehensive dashboards tied to the warehouse. As in McKinney, the new BCPS data warehouse will be Web-based and interactive, allowing users to sort data on the basis of the criteria they need, Van Itallie says. Much of the project will be completed by the end of this year, although ongoing work will continue after that. Van Itallie adds that it might be possible in the future to connect to mobile devices like smartphones for even easier access. That would allow a teacher who is away from her school computer to access the results of a formative assessment from her smartphone and modify her lesson plans accordingly for the next day, Van Itallie explains.

Baltimore City (Md.) Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso shares Maryland School Assessment Test results at a press conference last summer.

When the Cumberland County (N.C.) Schools (CCS) looked for a data warehouse solution in 2004, administrators knew what they needed. At the time, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction was implementing a new statewide student information system, and the CCS wanted the ability to download data from the state system and store it in its own centralized data warehouse, where administrators and teachers could easily access it along with district-generated data. Administrators adopted a solution from eScholar.

Less Paperwork

A significant advantage of the district's warehouse today is that it relieves administrators and teachers of the large amount of paperwork they had to sort through previously to create personalized education plans for students needing them, says Scott McLeod, programmer/developer in the Cumberland schools. Now they just identify a student and have access to all the information on that student. "They can see within 20 seconds how the student is responding or not," McLeod says, adding that the data helps drive whatever decisions might be necessary on how to help that particular student.

With a major Army installation, Fort Bragg, located in Cumberland County and a number of military parents deployed abroad, the district has developed a Web application that allows parents to access the warehouse from wherever they are for up-to-the-minute attendance and achievement information about their children. "It's a way for a parent, even in Afghanistan, to stay in touch with how his or her student is doing in school," says McLeod. A data-collecting challenge many districts face is inaccuracy caused by duplicate data entry. This results not only in inaccurate reports but also requires countless hours to reconcile the data.

Three teachers of different core subjects at Burncoat Middle School in the Worcester (Mass.) Public Schools review data related to student reading and writing proficiency.

In the Ramapo (N.Y.) Central School District, duplicate data also caused inefficiencies because of a job overlap. Until about six years ago, "not only was the school secretary entering information, 10 other people were typing that same information into a variety of administrative software packages," says James Yap, the district's director of instructional technology and data management.

One result was that students' names often were misspelled, or different students with similar names were confused with each other. With the district's new data system, Yap says, "the data is so much cleaner, and looks the same from one database to another, so you know exactly what kid you're talking about." It also helps when a new student registers in the district. Within 30 seconds, a teacher can meet the student virtually and learn all about him or her, unlike previously, when it might have taken three weeks to get a new student into the district's computers, Yap says.

The Denver (Colo.) Public Schools put all its past and present information regarding students, programs and curricula into one place through what is called a "Digital Door Project" that created a portal for administrators two years ago and another for teachers just last year.  rough the portals, administrators and teachers can access from the district's data warehouse the latest information about their students and connect it to their historical information, develop trend data about specific groups of students, and then analyze the eff ectiveness of particular programs, teachers and interventions to inform future practices.

Whatever districts call their data systems, they all have a common objective— to help students achieve. "We don't want to be flying our plane blind," concludes Miniscalco. "We want that data to really inform our direction."

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.