Data-Driven Districts Experience Growing Pains (Updated)

“You know,” I shared with a colleague in Texas, “we’re looking for a ‘Systems Interface Specialist,’ which is another term for someone with database administrator (DBA) skills but whose salary won’t rival the superintendent’s!” We’d both lamented earlier at the high cost of database administrators, who enjoy salaries in excess of $90,000.
“I have a story to tell you,” responded my friend, a CTO in a larger school district. “I spent much of the year articulating the why this position was necessary to the superintendent. When the position was finally posted, we interviewed and hired a person for the DBA position.”
“What does your position pay?” I wondered aloud. Maybe I wasn’t recruiting in the right place. He held up his hand, indicating he had more to say.
“You won’t believe this. When I offered the candidate the position, he demanded a $10K increase to the $85,000 annual salary. So, I went back to the superintendent and justified the pay increase. That was in September.”
He paused before continuing. “At the end of December, he came back and said to me, ‘I’ve been offered six figures to do the same thing I’m doing for you.’ And he was gone.”

In my own experience in a large school district, there was a “Data Warehouse” team composed of a Director who, according to him, worked 14 hours a day, as well as 3 data warehouse specialists. The 3 specialist positions were revolving doors, as each of those was hired by companies like Rackspace.com, a well-known San Antonio-based Internet Service Provider, and server host. The funny reports that would come back from these individuals included higher pay and the ability to wear slippers at work.

True or not, one fact is incontrovertible–school districts need access to a bewildering array of just-in-time data collection, analysis, aggregation/disaggregation tools that intersect along a multitude of points (e.g. student demographics, teacher quality, end of course). Worse, it’s not enough to just house the data from your student information system and be able to query it. You also have to be able to generate a variety of data files.

Here’s one diagram for a “data dashboard” to a data warehouse in one school district…it was my first attempt to try to explain to others how data needed to interact with each other.

As pointed out in this job announcement for Systems Interface Specialist, the primary task involves having in-house district staff to accomplish the following:

The Systems Interface Specialist will be responsible for working with a variety of technology systems, specializing in database interfaces between student or business information systems and third party vendors. 

Doug Johnson elaborates on this expectation in The Evolving Role of the Student Information Manager:

The traditional role of the Student Information System manager is therefore changing as well. No longer the keeper or a single, complex database that handles demographics, scheduling, grading, health, discipline, class rank, etc., the SIS manager now must also facilitate the transfer of accurate data among systems.

Source: DecisionEd Demo (over 600+ reports available)

SHARING INFORMATION TO JUSTIFY A NEW POSITION
To help justify the new type of position needed, and the subsequent need for an internal data warehouse, the following scenarios were solicited from teachers and campus instructional specialists. I also video-recorded a few of them explaining the challenges…quite powerful testimony to get the message across. Still, for smaller districts, these costs can be…well…prohibitive.

In Texas, several school districts shared the solutions they were using:

The prices range from relatively inexpensive to astronomical…of course, depending on your district’s need, there are tons of reports. For example, DecisionEd (approximately $200K+) is a self-hosted solution with annual maintenance costs that offers a plethora of relevant reports. I remember being truly amazed at the scope of those.

Whatever the needs, it’s obvious to me that state education agencies and regional education service centers need to step up their exemplary services to meet the exploding needs of local education agencies.

For example, if your student information system is hosted by an education service center, you may to setup a local “mirror” of the district data stored at that ESC. This enables your district staff to query the data locally without constantly requesting ESC staff (at a cost) to generate requisite data files.

Here is one possible diagram describing the process:

Although some solutions–like Clever–are working to bridge the gap, it can be difficult for school districts. Consider the following points:

Another challenge facing innovators in educational data is the difficulty of accessing and standardizing data stored in legacy student information systems (SIS). Startups including San Francisco-based LearnSprout and Clever have made some inroads in this area, with offerings that synchronize SIS data across multiple educational technology platforms and save developers the messy work of implementing cross-system compatibility. 

Breaking down SIS barriers that are imposed on developers will also encourage the deployment of more advanced data science initiatives that use educational data. In addition, specific policy interventions can encourage participation and use. (Read more)

Clever’s explanation includes the following:

Clever securely connects with your SIS and synchronizes rosters for you automatically. Clever offers both “pull” (credentials-based) and “push” (SFTP) syncing, and takes just five minutes to set up.

Unfortunately, Clever doesn’t support TexasSuccess.org–composed of Istation and Think Through Math intervention and diagnostic tools many districts in Texas use–not to mention several other issues. As a result, the position of DBA or “systems interface specialist” has to exist to manage the data file creation/generation requests and synching them up to vendors.

Finally, what should the process look like? Since no ravings of a madman could be complete without a hand-sketched drawing, I’m including one:

By the way, some desired features in a Data Warehouse include the following:

  1. Local district-hosted, turn-key solution that interface with internal and external data sources
  2. Has a perpetual license for server administration, report development, query development, dashboard development, and end user access for District Staff and School administrators (non-classroom staff).
  3. Robust, secure reporting features customized for Texas school districts that allow for
  4. Excel, PDF, HTML export capabilities (and the ability to turn those on/off as needed)
  5. The ability to structure results that include information such as student assessments, student attendance,student marks and GPA, student interventions, student program participation, student enrollment and behavior, transcripts, special education.
  6. Role-based dashboards with drag-n-drop functionality for customization
  7. Custom tools that work with existing vendors (e.g. Eduphoria)
  8. Professional Learning Opportunities for district, campus staff, and high-end training for data experts (e.g. Curriculum staff).

What would you add?


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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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