District Leaders Seek Interoperability to Access Data Educators Need

Associate Editor

San Francisco

Ed-tech data dashboards can help teachers grasp student information quickly, but sometimes districts just need the raw data behind them, and interoperability is a key to that, K-12 officials said at a conference here.

Interoperability—defined as the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications—was the topic of a session Monday at the annual conference of the Education Technology Industry Network, a division of the Software & Information Industry Network.

With many districts running up to 100 ed-tech applications—most operating within a closed ecosystem of their own data—that kind of access to cross-reference pieces of information about students is often impossible for schools.

“My office is constantly slammed with unique, one-off data requests,” said Tim Cariss, the director of assessment and accountability at the 13,000-student Chico Unified School District, who spoke at the event. “It’s like a constant flood.”

As his district is preparing reports for its Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) required by the state, “all I want is a big CSV file,” said the director of assessment and accountability, referring to a “comma-separated values” file that allows data to be saved in a spreadsheet format. “No charts. No graphs. Just give me the raw data behind it. In a lot of cases, it’s hard to get to,” he said.

The chief technology officer for the 56,000-student San Francisco Unified School District agreed. Melissa Dodd has been the district’s CTO for the past three years, and she told the vendors and consultants who work with them that they should “think about who your audience is, your stakeholders,” and whether that K-12 leader or educator needs to look across multiple applications. How they consume data will determine what needs to be delivered, she said.

But companies that make and sell ed-tech products say that districts also want dashboards because that’s the fastest way for educators to make sense of the data that’s being generated about students’ academic progress, attendance, behavior, and other factors about their school experience.

In whatever format the data is eventually delivered, interoperability is the way to access it, the district officials here said.

As she looked at San Francisco’s use of ed-tech, Dodd found that the district had more than 100 systems and applications educators were using in various ways. “It was very decentralized,” she said, with disconnected systems.

So the district undertook what she called a “real discovery process” to map out what systems were being used, for what purpose, and in which departments to address the frustrations principals and other administrators were experiencing as they had to go to 20 different places to access student data.

“That was really the impetus for why we had to change,” she said. Since then, the district has built a culture of awareness about the issue, creating a vision of what they want to attain with its data, systems, people, and processes. They asked themselves about “everything from leadership and governance to interoperability,” she said.

Putting Interoperability Into RFPs

Dodd said San Francisco departments and schools used to be able to make ed-tech procurement decisions on their own, but now there’s a district steering committee that reviews purchasing.

And, in the RFPs, there’s a requirement to use the Ed-Fi Data Standard for interoperability. The standard is a set of rules that allow educational data systems to connect, whether they are student information systems, a rostering tool, or an assessment platform, for instance.

Deciding on a common standard took the burden off the district struggling with a small team to make all the ed-tech work together, said Dodd.

The data demands are as daunting in a district that is about one-fourth the size of San Francisco, said Cariss.

“We ended up with 40 different systems housing student-level data,” said Cariss. The manpower needed to manage that was unsustainable, he said.

“Beyond that, the new state accountability system places a much, much higher importance on a variety of student data—attendance data, discipline data, survey data, state test data, local test data, and it goes on and on,” he said.

Dodd agreed that the demands are continuing to grow, and administrators will need to see data in real-time, which will only be possible with interoperability of systems.

Representing the vendor view on the panel, Tim Casey, the director of state and federal compliance for Skyward, said that incorporating the Ed-Fi data standard in its school management products has helped the company save on onboarding costs in different states. He said it helps drive down the cost of implementation.

“It’s been an investment. It’s taken a lot of time, but we’re starting to see a return,” he said.

About two months ago, ed-tech companies were asked to sign a “vendor pledge” committing that their digital tools and platforms will meet a standard for interoperability. The pledge is the work of Project Unicorn, a group that is a part of Innovate EDU, a New York-based nonprofit focused on closing gaps in student achievement through new learning models and tools.

 

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