Neal Gibson – Education Data: Tackling the Usability Challenge

It’s safe to say that the State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) grants have been a runaway success. The Data Quality Campaign has tracked the progress states have made since the grants began in 2006. That progress, from mostly blue in 2006 to mostly orange in 2011, represents a tremendous amount of capacity that has been built in recent years, in large part from these SLDS grants.

DQC-Blue to orange

However, the rapid pace of development on the longitudinal data front has left most states with a common problem: The systems created to share information with educators and the public are often difficult to use. Moreover, states seldom create a single solution that addresses the needs of all stakeholders.

A Perfect Education Data Storm

I’m part of the problem. As a project manager at the Arkansas Department of Education, I created two separate websites to share information with stakeholders. If I had been really smart – like Google or Facebook smart – I would have created one. A single website would have been perfect, but in our rush to add capacity we introduced the confusion of multiple websites

It is very difficult to include, within a single website, all the information an educator or parent might need to plot the best path forward for an individual student – and to do so in a protected manner. As a result, valuable data – the timely, student-level data that teachers, parents and even students can use to identify important learning trends in the near term – often remains buried in fragmented systems.

Meanwhile, there are two other developments poised to change the face of the American education system: 1) the increasing popularity of blended learning  and other new ways of delivering instruction that are dependent on strong integration of student data, and 2) the rollout of the Common Core, which represents a fundamental change in what instruction educators will deliver – and which will bring with it new challenges in the types of data that will need to be captured and somehow made useful.

Now that most states have built the capacity to manage large data, the emphasis needs to turn to the small; in other words, usability. Given the disruptions educators face in the near term, central to usability is simplicity.

The Next Frontier: Education Data Usability

Going forward, we need to make sure we are focused on addressing the needs of our most critical end users – teachers, school leaders, students and parents. At every turn, those of us working to transform state educational data systems must ask the same questions:

  • Can we provide teachers with the information they need in a timely and easily understandable format? Are we giving them, at the start of every day, the insights they need to change the trajectory of each and every one of her students?
  • Do the students and parents have easy, secure access to the information they need to plot the best path forward?
  • Can we provide administrators with the information they need to best manage day to day operations, such as early warnings about attendance and discipline trends, and the ability to detect instructional problems?

Providing  stakeholders with a comprehensive and actionable view of student performance may sound simple enough, but it turns out to be very difficult. However, there is hope on the horizon.

States are working together on these changes, and freely sharing systems and best practices. The state of Colorado has been especially influential in their work around student growth. Other states have also been active, and the U.S. Department of Education has even set up a website specifically for such sharing. In addition, the Ed-Fi system represents a viable solution in our need to create a single system that can be used by a variety of stakeholders. The biggest value for these users is the ability to understand learning trends as they are happening, instead of having to wait until the end of the year. The Ed-Fi solution has also been designed to accommodate the demands of a changing educational landscape (e.g., blended learning and Common Core.). To this end, the Ed-Fi team has been very active in support of the US Department of Education’s Common Education Data Standards.

Can We Do It?

Can we provide a single system which securely serves all levels of the educational enterprise, from the state, to the educator, and to the parent and student? In the past, I’ve subscribed to the “let a thousand flowers bloom” philosophy of technical development. However, given the increasing demands educators face, we need to coalesce around a single comprehensive and timely education data standard that ensures usability. Ed-Fi is both comprehensive and timely. In the coming months, Ed-Fi tools will play a central role in helping Arkansas develop new capacity to turn education data into actionable information that can transform student lives.  As more and more states adopt it, it’s also poised help the education sector as a whole move to next stage of development: Creating useable platforms that enable stakeholders to put integrated data to work to increase student achievement.

Neal Gibson is the director of the Arkansas Research Center. He was a classroom teacher for 16 years.

Leave a Comment


  • Linda Boudreau

    Great post, thanks for sharing. There is a lot of great work being done with data analysis and data linkage tools for the future of education with P20 and SLDS initiatives. Linking K-12 data with college and career data will certainly have a positive, significant impact on student achievement.

    Linda Boudreau
    Data Ladder

    • Linda Boudreau

      As you said, a single comprehensive and timely education data standard that ensures usability is key to the success of these programs. States need to take advantage of the data analysis that is being made available, and as you say turn education data into actionable information that can transform student lives.

      Linda Boudreau

  • Miller Guidance

    Thanks Neal for raising the usability issue. It is central to achieving the goal of raising student achievement through data based decision making.

    If I am understanding you correctly, your use of the Ed-Fi data system makes data readily available to a variety of stakeholders. We have come so far in our use of technically adequate data!

    I see another very important component of the usability question. When this technically adequate data lands on antiquated systems, the information is either used incorrectly (like fitting a square peg in a round hole) or not used at all. To be sure there are districts who have the capacity to use it well but there are at least as many who are far from it.

    In addition, there is little standardization across classrooms, grade levels, schools or districts about the definition of risk.  To conserve precious resources, responses to all degrees of student need must be coordinated, closely monitored, and adjusted so that all students are receiving the help they need in a timely fashion.  All of this requires a comprehensive system for understanding and using the data at the district and school level.