Future of Learning

School data is messy, but it doesn’t have to be

A drive to make data ‘interoperable’ could unlock the promise of classroom innovation in the digital age

Schools collect reams of data that could help teachers make decisions in the classroom, but getting all that data into one system, formatted the same way, is a pressing challenge for districts.

Schools collect reams of data that could help teachers make decisions in the classroom, but getting all that data into one system, formatted the same way, is a pressing challenge for districts.

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Cameron Berube, executive director of teaching and learning in the Providence Public Schools, calls it the plumbing that affects what happens in the classroom. Mike Baur, program manager for data-driven education at the Dell Foundation, says when it works it should be totally invisible. Erin Mote, co-founder of InnovateEDU, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, points out that being able to use your Bank of America debit card to get money from a Chase ATM proves it already exists in some industries.

It’s data interoperability. A growing number of advocates argue that it’s critically important for schools — and not as scary as it sounds.

Today’s classrooms generate reams of data. It comes from a wide range of education technology products, assessments and other sources — there’s data from reading programs, math programs, state tests, daily quizzes, student history and more, each one a single puzzle piece that could be linked to other pieces to create a unified picture, but that, more often than not, stands alone.

Sometimes this data stands alone because it’s in such a different format that it can’t be understood in concert with data from other platforms. To mix metaphors, it’s as if one system’s data is in Spanish, another system’s data is in Mandarin and English-speaking educators who want to gain insights from the combination of the two must jump through the hoops of translation before being able to understand anything.

With data interoperability, the data would all exist in the same language and the puzzle would get put together automatically. Right now, in most schools, that’s just a dream.

And here’s why it’s a problem: When Providence’s teachers meet in teams to discuss student progress, they sit around tables with their laptops, logging into various systems, looking at PDF reports that show student performance data. One question can be answered by data in one system, another needs a log-in to a different system. It takes time. And it takes away from productive conversation.

Berube said teachers have 45 minutes for these team meetings. “Every minute of that meeting has to count,” Berube said. “I need them to have one place where they go to get data for their kids.”

Some teachers spend their weekends downloading PDFs of data from the educational programs their students use, manually transferring the data to Excel, conducting their own data analyses and then transferring insights back to their gradebooks.

Related: Psst! When teachers get useful, timely data, they use it

Mote says data interoperability will give teachers their Sundays back. One of her nonprofit’s major initiatives, Project Unicorn, aims to help schools claim the power they have as ed tech purchasers. Since last year, 419 districts have signed Project Unicorn’s interoperability pledge, saying, among other things, that they will prioritize data interoperability when deciding which vendors to work with.

In Providence the curriculum and instruction, IT, and research, planning and accountability departments are working together on this. They have put all their current vendors on notice — by the 2019-2020 school year, they have to comply with basic data standards, which would, effectively, ensure that all of the data that Providence classrooms generate, in any platform, will be available to the district in a single language, as puzzle pieces primed to be automatically assembled into a cohesive whole.

While this makes more work for vendors, Berube said she hasn’t gotten any pushback to the announcement.

“We’re the buyer and there are tons of companies out there,” Berube said. “If you don’t do it, we’ll find someone else.”

That’s the mindset Mote wants all school districts to take on. She argues interoperability will give schools the opportunity to take full advantage of the promise of “everything from project-based learning to personalized learning.” If done right, Mote says it can increase the privacy and security around student data. And it will make data accessible for not only teachers but also parents and students, who are the ones generating the data in the first place and should be able to see it and use it.

And, she says, it’ll save schools money. Right now, districts spend a lot of time “translating” and otherwise preparing data to be analyzed by educators. Project Unicorn is set to release a report this spring naming the total cost of not being interoperable.

“It’s not pennies, it’s not even a couple dollars,” Mote said. “It’s $100-plus per student.” And some districts dip into four-digits when it comes to total cost, she added. “When you think about that on an annual basis, that’s incredibly illuminating in a resource-scarce environment like K-12 education.”

Becoming interoperable takes time. Mote imagines the U.S. school system is embarking on a 10-year journey to do this. And, she says, the sooner districts start, the better.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.


Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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