For more than a decade, I’ve been immersed in the philanthropic landscape, navigating both the acquisition and distribution of funding. Serving on the boards of philanthropic and education technology organizations has allowed me to advise exceptional groups united by a shared mission: improving outcomes for economically disadvantaged students and under-resourced communities. The questions these mission-oriented organizations all ask revolve around identifying effective strategies, understanding the catalysts for change, and determining where to invest to create the maximum impact for all students. I think most people working throughout the K-12 education sector ask themselves comparable questions.
I’ve worked closely with funders and standards bodies like Ed-Fi organizations, non-profits, and for-profits to help them unlock data to figure out what works and where to focus the limited talent, time, and monetary resources available. I’ve seen firsthand the immense effort (and dollars) invested to answer these questions—so why do we find ourselves still asking them?
The problems we’re trying to solve are complex. Data generated by students and teachers is created and then locked up in siloed data systems across school districts, with often hundreds of disparate systems within a given district. What do I mean by this?
- Students take multiple assessments, and the results from those assessments are either manually entered in a gradebook application or generated in a report (often a .csv file) from each assessment provider.
- The teacher or campus attendance clerk enters attendance in the student information system every day.
- A campus counselor or special education team lead enters information from an individualized education program (IEP) or a 504 plan into a special education data system.
- Disciplinary incidents are often tracked in yet another software application.
- (And so on, and so on… with the landscape of systems looking vastly different from district to district)
Extracting usable information from these siloes demands considerable time and effort, hindering its timely and practical application for students, parents, and administrators. Current market incentives contribute to maintaining these data siloes; major education technology firms continue the cycle of acquiring smaller products, which creates closed data ecosystems that prioritize their sales portfolio over district needs. In turn, school districts feel powerless to shift this dynamic because they are at the mercy of the technology providers.
Government and philanthropic organizations have invested substantial resources into addressing this intractable problem of siloed data. But progress has been sluggish, and funding efforts lack the necessary coordination to drive widespread change in the market. To accelerate solutions for data interoperability challenges, there are key strategies that government and philanthropy should consider:
Have an intentional cross-program data strategy
Develop an intentional and cohesive strategy across programs. Do not make investments that cancel each other out; instead, leverage dollars to promote practices that will unlock data and break down the siloes. For example, if unlocking data requires modern infrastructure, try to incentivize with funding:
- the use of API data transfer wherever possible, instead of .csv files
- alignment to data standards
- use of cloud infrastructure
- best-in-class security practices
As an organization, you must ensure that all program teams understand and support implementing specific funding requirements or expectations that reinforce these priorities. It may be difficult to make these requirements in every project that is funded, but it will not become customary practice in projects unless you are intentional about requiring it, where possible.
Understand the connected data ecosystem
Acknowledge that data need to flow through a connected chain from the classroom to the district to the state. Whether you are investing in data to inform state or federal policy and budget decisions or to help campus leaders access data to evaluate intervention efficacy, you are working from the same dataset. Those data are generated in an electronic format by a teacher or student in the classroom (such as when a teacher takes attendance and marks it in the student information system, or when a student logs into an online assessment). That granular piece of data gets aggregated and filtered as it moves from classroom to campus to district to state. Today, a lot of work goes into filtering and aggregating those pieces of data as they move up the ecosystem.
So, what is a funder to do? Be intentional and avoid creating disconnected data requirements that burden local education agencies (LEAs) and hinder data-unlocking efforts. Spend time understanding how you can leverage the existing ways that data are made available—and the existing interoperability solutions—so you are intentionally creating yet another way data must be extracted and moved.
Align and drive coordination across standards organizations
The idea of unlocking siloed data implies that someone can make meaning of data from various sources, such as gradebooks and assessments. This meaning making is enabled by data standards, such as those proposed by the Ed-Fi Alliance, CEDS, SIF, and 1EdTech, which allow systems to speak the same language and connect data across systems. Funders can accelerate the adoption of interoperability standards by supporting existing data standards to evolve to meet new use cases, incentivizing collaboration among standards bodies, and expressing clear expectations to funding recipients on when to use a specific standard.
Invest for the long haul
Technology and data projects in an LEA or state education agency (SEA) are multi-year efforts, yet many grant programs operate on an annual cycle. It takes time to organize and gain stakeholder buy-in, work through procurement, and navigate internal policy and governance. Moving to a modern data infrastructure where data from various sources can be securely shared and used requires the LEA or SEA (or both) to map out a multi-year roadmap since they typically have the capacity to upgrade only one collection or data system at a time. If we want to unlock the power of data in K-12, then we must have patient capital that allows not only one LEA or SEA data modernization project to come to fruition, but also enough of them to reach the tipping point where the vendor community sees the move to interoperable data as inevitable.
Where do we go from here?
We can revolutionize the education landscape by dismantling data siloes using interoperable solutions. When funders align efforts, we can create a future where educators and policymakers have seamless access to the insights needed to support every student on their educational journey. This means that government agencies and philanthropic organizations can play a role in modernizing data use in K-12. Together, let us pave the way for a more interconnected, data-informed, and equitable educational experience for all.
The team at Education Analytics partners with states and districts across the country to ensure that the data generated by students and teachers in the classroom can be unlocked to understand what educational tools work for students. The solutions we provide with and for our partners prioritize using data standards and open-source tools to reduce the cost of implementing modern, interoperable data infrastructure. These solutions also ensure higher levels of privacy and security, while enabling the stakeholders closest to the data to control who accesses student data.
Interested in working together on interoperability-enabled research?
We love to find great collaborators who want to learn and innovate together. If you are interested in exploring how interoperability and research can change the field of education, get in touch.