Districts, States Struggle to Develop High-Tech Data Systems

Published August 8, 2011

The past year of education debates in legislatures and widespread annoyance over antiquated technology in public education has prompted myriad expensive, time-consuming digital records projects in states and districts.

As states and the federal government require more data points on everything from basic recordkeeping such as attendance and standardized test scores to complicated pilot programs like data-influenced teacher evaluations, school systems are screening software vendors to help with such projects and other rapidly popularizing digital offerings such as student-tailored math programs and apps to connect with parents. The federal government has spent at least $250 million to help create longitudinal data systems.

“It’s basically a confusion,” said Michael Horn, executive director of the Innosight Institute, a think tank that studies technology and innovation. “There’s a lot of buzz around [technology in education], and it’s hard to say what is real right now.”

An important goal, said Marcia Bohannon, a senior data systems consultant for the Colorado Department of Education, is getting real-time information about individual students and using it not only to plan their very next lesson but also linking their progress with particular teachers and learning about teacher effectiveness. 

The data systems in 17 states cannot match teachers to students, according to a recent analysis from the Data Quality Campaign. In the first six months of 2011, eight states passed laws tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, making such data essential.

Data on Index Cards
School administrators and tech gurus have taken up the challenge of creating useful systems out of the chaos. Many schools use some sort of “school information system,” software tracking everything from enrollment to demographics to grades. 

There are two important difficulties in implementing these systems, however. First, school systems buy different software, which can make data sharing between schools extremely complicated by siloing information. Second, many schools, especially rural schools which teach a quarter of the nation’s students, cannot afford such systems or the tech support staff to keep them running. 

Several states, including Texas, Colorado, and Ohio, are exploring the use of state-sponsored SISes to reduce such obstacles. California’s SIS ran for several years before Gov. Jerry Brown (D) axed its funding this spring under pressure from employee unions. In Texas, districts can sign up for the state SIS this fall. Colorado and Ohio are exploring this option for larger data systems in the works. 

“The districts in Colorado are all over the map in terms of their technological capability,” Bohannon said. “Some have virtually none, and some are very sophisticated. It’s been very difficult for them to report the data. Some have a system as basic as using index cards.” 

Private Contractors Adapting
States are largely contracting with outside providers that tailor existing systems to district and school needs. Some software providers offer extreme ease of use. The SchoolForce application, for example, is open-source software that runs on any computer with an internet browser. Schools can develop apps using it and share them with other schools on the same system. 

The application offers one main screen where teachers, administrators, and parents can enter, store, share, and find information about a particular child, class, or school—such as attendance data, discipline trends, or their child’s score on this morning’s quiz. 

One customer built a SchoolForce app for reading tests that allowed a teacher to enter each child’s reading accuracy, vocabulary, strengths, and weaknesses each day and can immediately target the next day’s reading to every student’s specific needs.

“Teachers have so much administrative overhead it’s unreasonable to have them flip through binders to compare all these points of information about each student,” said Marty Young, a managing director at Acumen Solutions, the company that developed the app. 

Savings Potential, Implementation Challenge
In July the Dell Foundation offered a free data standard, Ed-Fi, to help disparate data systems communicate with each other. It’s the first of several data connectors foundations are composing to make the vast data collected actually useful to educators and researchers. 

In Texas, 1,250 districts and 4.8 million students will make scale and personalization, typically opposite ventures, both extremely important and daunting for the new state SIS. The system will have to track each student’s attendance, discipline, grades, registration, and enrollment, plus staff and student demographics. It will offer a master schedule, parent-student portals, and historical information about each school. 

“Beyond the functional improvements [districts will] enjoy, the price points will be very attractive,” said Brian Rawson, director of Texas’ Statewide Data Initiatives. “Districts are very interested in doing that price comparison. We feel like now is the time to get the word out and really get the adoption curve started, because of the economic climate.”

Implementing a single system over hundreds of thousands of schools and districts has been a frustrated reform dream for centuries. State departments of education are engaging administrators early in the process to spike support among educators. 

“One of the biggest challenges is how we get the culture to move along with it,” Bohannon said. “[There’s] very strong local control here—the schools and districts are very powerful. We need to understand what their needs are, and they need to understand how to communicate those needs to us so we can actually make their lives better instead of worse. And then there’s the whole thing about changing what they’ve done for 20 years.”