Tech Leadership

Show Me the Data

by Lane B. Mills

Since the inception of the No Child Left Behind legislation, school districts have been faced with a growing need to gather, analyze and monitor more data than ever before in our management of school performance. Accountability mandates also have placed a greater emphasis on gleaning the most granular types of information from these seas of data. The adage that we are “data rich” and “information poor,” while comical, can become a reality if school systems do not take action to plan for and deliver on their data management needs. Data management software can include any locally developed or commercial, off-the-shelf system for storing, manipulating, analyzing and reporting information used in the administration of a school or district. While a discussion of selecting the right data management and reporting system for a school district is so broad to be an appropriate dissertation topic, some steps and basic information can aid in a system’s decision making.

First Steps
Prior to selecting a data management solution, a thorough review of your district’s data needs and sources is a great first step. This analysis should include current as well as anticipated needs in the areas of data acquisition, management and reporting.

Technology staff in your district can assist with this overview as they are likely responsible for the implementation and support of the various systems for maintaining current district information.

Considering input from all areas of the system that need or contribute data to your school system’s management system is crucial to obtaining a clear picture of your needs.

Data management systems can range from complex commercial software applications to home-grown databases and spreadsheets. Commercial systems offer the benefits of highly integrated tools that manage the population, extraction and analysis of a myriad of data. Such systems offer a common platform for the day-to-day tasks of data management and support for their functioning as well as updates based on changing district needs.

These commercial, off-the-shelf applications are built to manage data at all levels of a school system and often allow for input, analysis and reporting of information at different user levels (school, area or district).

Many districts manage their data through the use of existing databases and tools in common desktop or client-server applications such as Microsoft Office, Microsoft SQL Server, Filemaker Pro or other open-source software tools, such as MySQL. The benefit of these solutions lies in the district’s ability to tailor the management tools to its specific needs and often at a much reduced cost in terms of purchasing.

The cost of these solutions usually falls into the areas of support of the applications by local staff or contractual vendors as well as the often disparate nature of the solutions.

Making a Choice
At a minimum, determining the solution to your district’s data management needs should involve several steps. Any solution should be flexible enough to meet current and anticipated system needs.

If a commercial solution is being reviewed, raise some key questions before any contract is signed. The vendor should be able to provide information about its successful experiences with data management that match the scope and nature of your needs. Detailed information about the total cost of ownership should be at the forefront of your queries.

Ask for details about infrastructure requirements, costs and level of ongoing support, training, system maintenance and data and system security. An often-overlooked component in choosing a data management system involves ensuring the tools or processes promote and require strong data integrity and maintenance.

The local development of a data management system also should be reviewed prior to adoption. In-house solutions allow for flexibility and customization specific to a district’s needs. Often at a much-reduced cost, school districts can create and manage powerful data management solutions with proper planning and ongoing communication and support from district leadership.

In our school district, we have created several data management applications with the assistance of a local programmer. Our initial foray into the development of such systems began with clear communication between the programmer and our staff and detailed expectations and specifications. We had numerous meetings before and after the application was developed to ensure the system met our needs.

Any locally developed solution should be scalable to meet future needs and include plans for support of the system both technically and administratively. The hidden costs of in-house systems relate to staff time for support and development and assurance your staff has the technical expertise to maintain and update the system.

In our experience with locally developed solutions, our close working relationship with our programmer has proven valuable as changes in regulations and reporting requirements have arisen or technical problems surfaced with the application. We have begun relocating the applications to our own servers and working with the programmer to learn how to develop our own applications with his support and guidance. To date, the systems have received rave reviews from our district staff and data from these systems has helped us justify many of our needs.

Lane Mills is the assistant superintendent for accountability and technology for Wilson County Schools, P.O. Box 2048, Wilson, NC 27893. E-mail: Lane.Mills@mail.wilson.k12.nc.us