A Homegrown Design for Data Warehousing

by Terry J. Thompson and Karen J. Gould

Data, data, everywhere, but how do we use it well?

In recent years our school district has been awash in data. In our attempts to improve levels of student achievement, we collected all manner of statistical details about students and schools and attempted to perform data analysis as part of our school improvement process.

But we were never quite sure we were collecting the necessary data, had no appropriate storage system to house the vast amount of information and had no acceptable way to connect our data sets to determine relationships and trends. Further, data were not easily readable and usable by staff, parents and students. Without a functional data system, we were unable to use our data to make the instructional and program decisions necessary to raise our student achievement.

The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis ascribes to the Effective Schools' mantra, "Learning for all, whatever it takes." Larry Lezotte worked with our leadership teams to set in motion research-based continuous improvement efforts because our evidence, including state test scores, suggested only learning for some was occurring. Our 14,500-student population was becoming more diverse, both socio-economically and ethnically. We had to develop new procedures to appropriately meet our students' needs.

Accountability Tiers

Our school board established district goals, which have only received minor tweaking over the past several years. These four goals guide our school district's continuous improvement efforts. They are:

  • Student Achievement: Improve individual student achievement, especially in reading, language arts, math and science, by exceeding national, state and district standards.

  • Community Partnership: Strengthen the partnership and support for learning among students, staff, families and community.

  • School Environment: Provide a safe, nurturing and orderly environment for teaching and learning.

  • Staff Effectiveness: Enhance staff effectiveness by providing professional development, recognition and leadership opportunities.

We developed an accountability system in 2000 with the assistance of Douglas Reeves of the Center for Performance Assessment. This system provided the framework for our school improvement process, required by Indiana Public Law 221. Reeves led a broad group of stakeholders in developing the three tiers of our accountability system.

Tier 1 data reflects the information the state requires us to collect; each of our 16 schools reports state test results, student and staff attendance, discipline rates and, for high schools, the high school graduation rate. Tier 2 data identifies four or five most important measurable objectives the school plans to undertake to improve its Tier 1 data; this school-specific data is determined by a school-based improvement team. Tier 3 is a narrative of factors that affected the data in Tiers 1 or 2 and other information that explains or adds to the data reported in the first two tiers.

Schools prepare an annual report delineating improvement results, which is shared publicly at a late spring meeting of the school board.

We continued to work with Reeves to better understand how to analyze our data for decision making. School teams created school data walls to visually share the improvements being made throughout the year. The need to collect data and use data to monitor progress and examine trends grew. School administrators also create data "science fair boards" to share their schools' improvements with colleagues during the annual administrative renewal.

A Robust System

To think about our data coherently, we developed the Wayne Continuous Improvement System. The critical role of broad-based leadership is represented by a ring around the other system components. These components sit in the context of climate and culture, strong influences on a system's capacity to improve. Then five inter-related components were defined: curriculum, instruction, assessment system, staff appraisal and professional development. We recognized that all these components must be excellent for optimal student achievement to occur. Data again would help us know whether we were hitting on all cylinders in these areas.

But how to manage our data was a big question. We had a student information system, but there was no capacity to expand it to the robust data management system we knew we needed. We investigated a commercial data warehouse system, but we found the cost was prohibitive for a district of our size. But where there is a will, there is a way. With a rubric in hand, we began a formative design process to build a custom data warehouse to meet our end users' needs.

Our director of technology, Paul Kreitl, worked with administrators to determine their data needs. What they desired most were the capacity to look at data for defined subsets of students, to examine relationships between various descriptors of student groups (for example, gender, ethnicity and test scores), and to study trends of the same group over time. Kreitl worked collaboratively with a local technology programming company, Management Information Services, to build our easy-to-use, customized system. This blended expertise and the mutual creative energies provided a strong foundation for a dynamic partnership.

The commercial standardized test data were imported to the data warehouse from CTB/McGraw-Hill's ReportMate Clarity. School support staff was trained to add information on instructional programs to student records in our student information system. Data were transmitted to the data warehouse, along with other student data, in a nightly data warehouse update.

As their skill in using data grew, school staff members requested additional reports to assist in their planning for improvement. The design team listened carefully and then developed additional reports. This process continues when a school team determines new information is required to plan the course of action to meet students' needs. Administrators and support staff were trained to access the data warehouse to obtain the requested reports.

Two Broad Goals

Some protocols had to be developed to determine who would have access and to what information. Working closely with our legal counsel, we made sure all access to electronic student records complied with confidentiality laws. Data access is dependent on the user's need to acquire information from a screen or screens and is based on the user's role in our organization.

As school administrators became more adept in retrieving and using data, we decided to expand the group of users. In early 2001, a group of parents, students, administrators and community leaders met to explore ways to enhance learning experiences for our students. The two broad areas of emphasis were literacy and personalization. The group had two goals: (1) all students reading at grade level and (2) educational experiences for students that reflected their interests, goals, learning styles and abilities. These led to an enhancement of our data warehouse.

Michele Walker, the district's assessment coordinator, and Kreitl, who oversees technology, led a district team in designing a personalized educational planning tool, or PEP. A consulting firm, Davidson Services, helped us develop high-level screen design requirements, a training plan and critical success factors. Examples of success factors include support for users of the system, particularly during the initial rollout, a structure for continuous improvement of PEP, parent communication and orientation, a means to access PEP for families without a home computer and clear rules for the use of PEP.

The local technology programming firm, Management Information Services, was brought back to create the custom system. PEP became an extension of the data warehouse. PEP is a password-protected program that provides a wealth of student data to students, parents and staff.

We hired a PEP facilitator, Karen Carter, to lead the training and to document the PEP implementation. The rollout began with small technology-savvy groups of teachers, parents, students and administrators. The developers closely monitored the alpha group's use of PEP and frequently provided evaluation questions in testing the screens. Questions included: Are the graphics and pictures clear? What would make the screen more enticing? Is there too much on one page? Are the page headings clear? Is the information easy to get to? Can you find what you need? What additional information is needed? What's not needed? Will this information affect learning?

The feedback was incorporated before the rollout expanded to a beta group. PEP came to life in a managed plan that eventually included all students, parents and staff. Tutorials, as well as review and training update sessions, provided users with ongoing support.

The project carried several ramifications. Adding PEP to the data warehouse expanded the user base from fewer than 100 administrators to more than 45,000 staff, students, and parents users and required us to invest in expanded hardware to accommodate the heavier user load.. Training went from traditional large group sessions to small group, personalized, online sessions and one-on-one mentoring. And owing to staff turnover and student matriculation, we had to repeat training regularly.

Excited Users

An evaluation of teacher and administrator use of PEP conducted by Learning Points Associates included comments from users, such as this: "It helps us fix so many inherent problems because data in a school … it's just loose ends all over the place and this [PEP] just consolidates it into one spot." Teachers commented they no longer had to go to the school office to search for student files for basic information. "All that information is right there at your fingertips," one teacher said, referencing school bus assignments, class schedules, home addresses and adult contacts, and performance in other classes.

As word of the new system grew, many teachers who were not in the first two implementation groups wanted to begin using PEP before their scheduled training and start date. The district complied by giving more intense support to schools where enthusiasm was high and leadership was known to be strong.

Teachers cited other advantages to using the data warehouse:

  • "If a child is not performing well for some reason or [is] really excelling, you can look back [on PEP] and see [how this compares to last year]. Was there something going on at home? Was it effort or a problem with not understanding? PEP allows us to put those pieces all together."

  • "We're doing more individual design on instruction for kids now than ever. … Having access to the students' records and all this information has got to make us more successful."

One principal predicted: "I think they'll have a hard time getting it away from teachers once they've had the access. The same with parents. I really believe with parents that once they have access, it becomes an integrated part of planning instruction and parent communication so you can't take it away."

Parents also shared their thoughts about PEP. One parent knew her son loved football, but had no idea that he liked to read mysteries until seeing his survey responses in PEP. She had never seen him read anything for fun and decided to surprise him with a new book. Since then his love of reading has increased and more time is spent reading instead of watching television.

Another parent was excited to find out her child preferred to study in a quiet environment. This child has several siblings and the parent had not previously considered the disruptions around the home. She made adjustments to provide a quiet place. PEP gave the parent new insight, and it empowered her child to take study time seriously.

A student's comment: "This is cool! It's like having my own web page!"

Parent Access

These technology tools have afforded our teachers data at their fingertips for differentiating instruction. Our six instructional coaches, who have received intensive training in both coaching strategies and in differentiating content, process and instructional products, work with teachers to apply the student data to create personalized experiences for students. Student engagement is high when classroom activities and environment reflects their needs.

Some of the ways the PEP data has assisted teachers include planning tasks based on readiness; creating tiered centers/products/lessons; developing skill support or interest groups; providing a variety of organizers; designing interest-based activities through choice boards; structuring appropriate learning environments; and comparing multiple assessment results to verify areas of strength and weakness.

A challenge to parents' access to using the online resources has been computer access itself. Although some parents have access to computers at their workplace, we have worked to provide alternatives, such as extended school library hours, computer kiosks at schools and public libraries with high-speed Internet access. Several community centers have installed computers for public access.

In addition, our district recently started "Bridging the Gap," a program in which used school computers are refurbished and given to needy families. With a family's purchase of Internet services, they can stay connected at home. We continue to look for other avenues to enable all of our families to be able to use PEP.

Our To-Do List

Our data warehouse is continuously evolving as technologies progress. We can adjust the warehouse and PEP to meet growing data needs, expanded student enrollments, changes in technology and even shifts in leadership focus. The goal is for all relevant data to be accessible by the appropriate users at any location at any time. To reach that goal, our to-do list includes: an updated design of web pages to reflect modern features; access from personal digital assistants; addition of web agents to understand a user's trends in accessing PEP info; and tighter interfaces to state education agency databases in order to reduce data entry and increase accuracy.

We also need to integrate the intelligence to recommend a course of action depending on student performance. We plan to automate the connection of student performance data with specific resources and research-based teaching and learning strategies so that individual prescriptions can be developed.

In its six years of operation, the data warehouse has been an indispensable tool for improving student achievement through analysis and communication. As its use becomes more pervasive in our schools and between homes and schools, the applications will assist our whole school family to better understand and support improved learning by all students.

Terry Thompson is superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, 1220 S. High School Road, Indianapolis, IN 46241. E-mail: terry.thompson@wayne.k12.in.us. Karen Gould is the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.