The Bridge from Data Integration to Insight Is People

Good intentions, an influx of dedicated federal funding, and integrated data can accomplish a lot, but they aren’t the entire story when it comes to improving educational outcomes.

The past decade has seen states deploy considerable resources to integrate and standardize education data across programs. These efforts create extraordinary opportunity. But they can’t reach that potential until they clearly align with those who use that data—and the ways in which they do.

What critical step can bridge these realities?

In my experience, it’s a shift in thinking. Because any effort to make lives and work better for people also has to start with people. Most of what we’ve seen emerge from these data integration efforts are approaches that lead with technology and a design process that leaves out the people who could most benefit from the data.

More and more standardized data alone will not automatically result in digital transformation. The power of data will never be fully realized without thoughtful, people-centered strategies for using data. Leading with people takes programs much further—to real results for those they serve.

Grasping the human value in data

Data integration can provide education systems indispensable insights at the student, school, district, and state levels by equipping educators with information about how to improve student outcomes. Practitioners get a more complete picture of each student’s situation through their academic, health, and public assistance data. Not only do they get access to insights that provide perspective, a well-tailored system provides information beyond progress monitoring to improve benchmarking and enable predictive analysis that informs educational decision-making to improve outcomes.

Those results require not just data but a culture shift.

States have made titanic efforts to design and develop integrated administrative data systems. They have better, more accessible data that could become immensely valuable to decision-making related to policy and practice. That puts these states in a perfect position to define their objectives in collaboration with the people engaged in achieving them. That collaboration must drive any productive approach to accessing and analyzing data.

Steps toward meaningful data utilization

Integrated systems have largely gotten ahead of how people—especially practitioners—work or think intuitively. For most states, these systems may have filled in gaps for reports or provided details when researching a policy question. They have not yet become an in-demand source for those on the frontlines to improve coordination of services and support student outcomes.

As states work past the perception of data as a compliance tool toward unlocking its potential to improve outcomes, a few important steps help drive the process.

1. Start by connecting people.

You need a solid understanding of what potential data users need before you can turn data into an effective tool. Engaging those who will be influenced by linking data creates stronger buy-in among stakeholders. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has had a well-known partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The state has invested in this partnership through their 2015 and 2019 SLDS grants by bringing together researchers, evaluators, and practitioners to address critical challenges that the DPI and educators have identified in their continuous improvement efforts. This concentrated effort has resulted in new datasets and in relationships aimed at solving real needs expressed by the state’s educators.

2. Work closely with administrators and teachers to understand how to best incorporate data into day-to-day processes.

They’ll have different needs, and almost certainly needs you wouldn’t have anticipated. You’ll end up with more useful tools and greater success with data collection when you hear from the people who’ll utilize those tools how they can become meaningful in their daily routine. For example, some schools have based their school improvement plans on the analysis of data provided by integrated data systems maintained by the state. Georgia’s SLDS includes a multitude of tools and supports that help educators and parents access data from the system on a routine basis.

  • The Instructional Improvement System (IIS) Data Analysis Tool enables school-level and district-level users in Georgia local education agencies to create customized reports using the assessment, attendance, and student growth model data available in the SLDS tunnel. The IIS Data Analysis Tool also allows users to collaborate and share the reports that they have created with other users in the school or district.
  • Districts can use the SLDS Online SIP as a standardized improvement plan. The state also provides a school improvement dashboard to offer insights on different data variables reflected at school, district, and state levels.
  • Georgia’s system includes parents by providing a portal through which they can access their student’s SLDS data.

3. Continually demonstrate that the data is accurate and meaningful.

Create regular opportunities for users to provide feedback on how to improve or add new elements to existing datasets. Create compelling case studies that illustrate the innovative and impactful ways data is being used. Educational workshops, data fairs, and data competitions improve the quality of data and demonstrate that it’s being applied in a meaningful manner. When the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education (ACPE) wanted to re-engage partner agencies and show other stakeholders the value of the state’s SLDS, they organized a proof-of-concept research study that highlighted data from the system. The partners worked together to identify a relevant topic and develop the analysis. These collaborative discussions with a wide range of stakeholders resulted in a 2013 study that examined Alaskan graduates’ postsecondary decisions and gave stakeholders a firsthand view of how an SLDS can inform policy and practice.

4. Map the needs of users to understand which business intelligence tools will help achieve the desired outcome.

These products constantly evolve and so should be reevaluated regularly by involving those they are intended to serve. When planning new tools or applications, be intentional about designing them to be intuitive (like an iPhone, which doesn’t need an instruction manual). Consistent evaluation and intuitive design will ensure that the information and offerings are relevant to those who will most benefit from the data.

Indiana’s Next Level SLDS Project focuses on expanding the utility and accessibility of the SLDS system by designing a series of new interactive dashboards informed by stakeholders representing the P-20 ecosystem. Indiana Department of Education’s human-centered design approach will help it understand stakeholder needs so business intelligence tools will make the data more useful and available.

A moment for change

If shifting your data culture were easy, everyone would have done it by now. Fortunately, there’s a lot of momentum now around policies and investments that address data linkage and utilization. The demand for actionable data will continue to rise with the tidal wave of challenges we face today as a nation.

To crib from Einstein, with an hour to save the world, you need 55 minutes to understand the problem so you can solve it in five. For any education system, that means taking every practical step toward learning what practitioners need—through empathy interviews, surveys, focus groups, and more than a few water cooler conversations.

We cannot let the urgency of the day sacrifice the potential for meaningful outcomes from data. This is the moment to act, thoughtfully and with full engagement from the people who move your programs forward—for their sake and the sake of all you serve.

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Curt Merlau, Senior Consultant

Curt Merlau is a Senior Consultant at Resultant. Curt’s focus is helping communities thrive through data and technology solutions in the education sector.