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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Power Up! / Navigating the Seas of Data

Power Up! / Navigating the Seas of Data - Thumbnail
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Schools are awash in data. Everything from 3rd grade reading test scores to payroll data to an inventory of each iPad purchased with Title I dollars is now stored in databases somewhere in your district.
Demographic data; attendance data; academic data (including an increasing number of test scores); and even teacher performance data are proliferating. Finance systems, transportation databases, helpdesks, and application and credentialing systems used by human resources departments are among the managerial databases used in most districts. To get an idea of some of the different data systems a typical school district may use to gather, store, and view information on students, see the sample flowchart.
Add to this a growing number of classroom management systems, learning management systems, and computer-based adaptive reading and math instructional systems that require someone to add and remove students from the programs, and you'll see why we're swimming in data. The larger number of people—including parents and students—who now use data systems, and heightened security concerns, also increases the challenges of providing data access.
District leaders need good numbers to make good instructional decisions, satisfy state and national reporting requirements, and create fiscally responsible budgets. And most school leaders don't want to worry about the technical details of database management. Most leaders are just as happy not knowing the difference between SQL and SSO; they just want information that's understandable, easy to find, reliable, and useful. As a technology director, I think it's reasonable for leaders in my district to expect this kind of access. But it's important to look at what kinds of expertise schools now need to keep data accessible and useful.

Why System Managers Have a Hard Job

The technology departments in which I've worked have all had a position with the job title Student Information System Manager. This person manages a single complex database that usually handles demographics, scheduling, grading, health records, discipline records, class rank, parent and student access, and communications systems that enable a school to contact staff and parents. PowerSchool and Infinite Campus are among the more commonly used products.
About two years ago, I became aware that the district I was working in needed not just a good manager of databases and information systems, but also a person on staff who could make sure our disparate data systems all communicated with one another. Our student information system was "burnt in"—meaning it was stable and well-used. The job of our Student Information System Manager, however, was becoming more difficult because of increasing needs for intersystem operability—the ability to enter data into one system and then export them to another system without losing or corrupting that data.
What that district needed, and I suspect many districts now need, was someone with a title like Systems Interface Specialist. Positions focused on helping systems interface together are appearing in schools. The recent job description for a Systems Interface Specialist from the Texas East Central Independent School District near San Antonio reflects some of the skills that data management personnel in schools currently need. This specialist's primary purpose is to be "responsible for working with a variety of technology systems, specializing in database interfaces between student or business information systems and third-party vendors." Key responsibilities listed for the position include the following:
  • Support the interface of cloud-based hosted applications, single sign-on technologies, and curriculum and software vendors systems.
  • Actively learn and apply knowledge of SQL, MySQL, VBScript, Windows Batch Scripting, and so on.
  • Understand and apply client/server applications architecture and management.
  • Understand and offer input on growing the district's network and server architecture.
  • Facilitate complex, cross-functional projects [so they reach] successful completion with multiple departments and vendor partners.

A "Bewildering Array" of Data Collection

The Texas district launched this position to help organize its various data systems and enable all systems to work together so that the many members of the school community could efficiently access, analyze, and use the pieces of school-related data they needed. As Miguel Guhlin, technology director for the district, reflected,
<BQ> One fact is incontrovertible: School districts need access to a bewildering array of just-in-time data collection, analysis, and aggregation and disaggregation tools that intersect along a multitude of points (such as student demographics, teacher quality, end-of-course [data]). Worse, it's not enough to just house the data from your student information system and be able to query it. You also have to be able to generate a variety of data files. </BQ>
One big challenge for education data managers is that schools lack a truly useful, affordable set of common data formats and database languages. For some reason, Microsoft's School Interoperability Format never gained traction in schools or with vendors. Programs like Microsoft's Active Directory and Clever's Instant Login help reduce the number of passwords that staff and students need to remember, but they fall far short of creating a unified means of keeping and transferring school data.
Education software vendors themselves, in my experience, fail to consider how they might automate importing and managing users so that educators don't end up with this task. "You mean the teachers can't just add the students manually?" is the response I often hear from creators of nifty adaptive reading and math programs.
I predict that the role of systems interface specialists, who can help districts navigate through their data seas, will grow in importance. It might eventually eclipse the job of Student Information System Manager. Looking for a job in education with a future? This might be it.
End Notes

1 Guhlin, M. (2014, December 2). Job posting: Systems interface specialist [blog post]. Retrieved from Around the Corner at <LINK URL="http://www.mguhlin.org/2014/12/job-posting-systems-interface-specialist.html">www.mguhlin.org/2014/12/job-posting-systems-interface-specialist.html</LINK>

2 Guhlin, M. (2015, January 17). Data-driven districts experience growing pains (updated) [blog post]. Retrieved from Around the Corner at www.mguhlin.org/2015/01/data-driven-districts-experience.html

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