Education data at work in K-12

This is a blog series about interoperability: the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications.  In this series, we will highlight the ways that data interoperability is laying the foundation for innovation and helping enable great classroom instruction. We will also hear from partners who are implementing solutions to overcome the lack of data interoperability today in the K-12 sector. You can find the whole series here.

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Can you talk about what you’re doing at Portland Public Schools and how it relates to interoperability?

I’m the Chief Information Officer at Portland Public Schools and interoperability has been a passion of mine and a problem that I’ve seen in education software and systems over many years.  It’s something I’ve been chasing and interested in.

What problems have you seen arise when districts can’t easily access and manage their student data that live in multiple systems?

One of the main problems that occurs is district staff need to do double or triple entry of data into various information systems. Teachers obviously don’t have a lot of time in their day. Their day is largely comprised of being in front of students, and that’s as it should be. If a teacher has to enter the same data into multiple systems because those systems do not easily talk to each other or exchange information, then that teacher is losing potential instructional time with kids, valuable preparatory time to prepare lessons for students, or grading time.

Districts can also end up with conflicting information between systems that have required independent entry, so their source of the truth becomes muddled. That can be problematic in trying to figure out what really is happening with a certain student or class.

And all of this affects the decision-making process:

  • If teachers must manually integrate systems or enter data multiple times, the rate at which they can use current information to make decisions is greatly reduced.
  • It can result in a lapse in program placement for students. When a new student enters the district and the systems aren’t integrated, it takes more time to get the necessary information to place that student into special education programs, English as a second language programs, or even courses required for graduation.
  • Teachers can lose whole instructional days with a student who may be behind and really needs rapid intervention.  If there isn’t access to information in siloed systems quickly, student learning is affected.

Data standards create a common language. Schools and districts begin to have a shared data dictionary and consistent naming of data elements. It’s a very basic thing for us to be able to talk to each other about how we’re going to exchange data and what data we want and need.

What are some barriers for districts in trying to get access to manage their students’ data?

One of the biggest barriers is that many vendors think they can build a product or a series of products that meet all the needs of a school district, and that’s typically not the case. There are vendors who are forcing their customers into buying more and more modules of their software because they’re not willing to easily let data flow out of or into their system. So, business philosophy, dollars and business models that are generating revenue are all a barrier to change.

Also, without data standards, integration among multiple systems is required, and that’s a high-risk and high cost proposition. Vendors often bear, or at least, share the cost of integrating their product with many others.  If the system changes on either side, which they often do, the custom integration is at risk of breaking. So, that’s a barrier as well for both vendors and districts

How can districts begin to take back their students’ data?

The first thing for districts is understanding how their data is moving.  Once they understand that, they can then adopt a data standard that is modern and can begin to standardize some of the interfaces between systems.  The Ed-Fi Data Standard is a good example of this.

In K-12 education, we often choose software without considering our ability to move data into or out of that system. We need to start thinking about interoperability integration early in the selection process and weighing it as a significant factor, in the same way we would weigh student privacy and security. We need to consider it at the outset so we’re not just chasing the shiniest or newest piece of software, but we’re looking at sustainability, security and interoperability.

What role do data standards play in helping both districts and vendors improve data management and access practices?

Data standards create a common language. Schools and districts begin to have a shared data dictionary and consistent naming of data elements.  It’s a very basic thing for us to be able to talk to each other about how we’re going to exchange data and what data we want and need. If we’re using different language and terminology, those conversations become much more difficult.

Another piece I’ve mentioned already is reducing risk. Data standards allow us to reduce risk by moving the integrations in our environments to a more stable data management system. Doing custom integrations against transactional systems is high cost, high risk. If important data can be abstracted into a more stable operational data store, then risk and cost are greatly reduced. Vendor lock-in is also reduced, and there is a lower cost of changing systems and migrating software.

That leads into best of breed decision making and discourages monopolistic practices. Districts can then choose the best software for the purpose instead of getting locked into a vendor because that vendor can integrate data among their modules.

And vendors can begin to design their software that way, too. They can begin to look at the market differently and can chase parts of the market they may not have otherwise gone after if they really were implementing a monolithic product and counting on a full buy-in from all their customers. They can go after niche markets at lower risk because they can implement that product more easily and at lower cost than if they had to bolted onto an existing monolithic solution.

Josh Klein is the Chief Information Officer at Portland Public Schools. Prior to that, he worked in information technology for the Oregon Department of Education. You can find Josh on Twitter at @TheJoshKlein.

Other blogs in this series:

Data Interoperability in K-12: I promise this isn’t boring

Data Interoperability in K-12: Where is the magic?

Data interoperability in K-12: The end of the human API

Data interoperability in K-12: Why it matters

Education data interoperability: Supporting teachers in the classroom