How to Enhance the Use of Student Data Through a School District Portal

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner
Looking for meaning in the portal.

The Hechinger Report put out the perfect article recently to describe what goes on around data in bigger urban districts like the one in Tulsa, Okla. There, the district has a “team of data analysts and developers” who produce dashboards and portals for use by teachers and administrators. The dashboards “bring together a host of data that schools already collect, but often store in multiple different systems.” This is a smart decision by the superintendent in Tulsa (even though I still believe that a data warehouse portal isn’t the right answer for most schools. See my previous post on 6 Principles Every K-12 Data Solution Should Follow.)

Districts are too often reluctant to hire engineering talent to solve problems. I remember speaking to a team of people at a large district who were responsible for their many portals and yet not a single one could write a line of code! How you end up with an entire team of people responsible for producing software when none of them have a software development background to me speaks to the lack of value many districts place on technology. 

But then most districts can’t actually afford to hire a team of analysts and developers. And yet district leaders have figured out that it’s hard to implement their initiatives if they don’t have data. For example, professional learning communities are only a good use of teacher time if teachers have easy access to evidence of student learning. Parents engagement is likely to be weak if the only view into their child’s progress is a semi-annual report card.

And yet some districts can incorrectly learn the lesson that a portal will do the work for them. For example, a Colorado district just announced they’re scrapping parent teacher conferences in favor of access to the portal that came with their student information system. The face-palm nature of this move is pretty easy for anyone to see. As one of the parents quoted in the article put it, “most of all, for me it was about building that trust with the teacher.”

There are many ways to build trust and different parents will respond to different methods. The transparency that can come from access to a portal can be helpful, but it certainly isn’t going to be the only tool that helps parents and teachers build trust, especially given potential barriers of language and access to technology. And if the only data in your portal is “Did my kid show up today?” and “Did he pass math?” then it’s unlikely to be very actionable for parents or students.

Portals can be helpful for giving stakeholders access to important information but are far from the solution to most schools’ technology, data, and transparency needs.

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