Business Intelligence vs. Political Correctness in Education

I work for the Val Verde Unified School District and the Riverside County SELPA.  If you don’t know what either of these are don’t worry, just know that we deal with A LOT of student and teacher related data.

That being said, the question that always comes up is, “How we can serve our students better?”  Many people have different ways of interpreting this, whether it is based on grades, overall improvement, discipline, where students head after they graduate, etc.

One area of my particular interest that is starting to seep into the education world is Business Intelligence (BI), or rather the art of turning vast amounts of data into something that is actually useful.  One of our Asst. Superintendents recently said he felt the district was “data rich and information poor”.  He was expressing his frustration that they had an incredible warehouse of data but it was very difficult to analyze or use.  This sounds like a perfect fit for BI.

What kind of data do we have?  Well, just in our Student Information System (we use Aeries from Eagle Software) for each student we have grades, attendance history, class history, demographics (race, address, contacts), test scores, Special Ed info, movement between schools, and discipline records just to name a few.  For our staff we have their classes taught and students in the classes.  We have several other databases as well such as our district-wide library database (we use Destiny from Follett Software), our ASB database that tracks all our student spending for sports, dances, yearbooks and debt and our HR database for staff that includes certifications, degrees, work history, evaluations, etc.

We also use GIS to map students onto our district map allowing a lot of decisions to be made regarding geographic information, such as where to build schools.

With this admin staff and teachers are already attempting to ask questions that will help identify target student groups for extra programs and such.  Some of the work they manually do, such as separating students that are known to disrupt classes if they are put in the same room together.  This is a great start but a far cry of what large companies are doing these days. 

Until recently this type of information analysis has been out of reach for school districts.  While the tools are inexpensive, such as the Microsoft BI stack, there has been very little ability to hire experienced staff or to train their current staff.

Beyond the simple resources though, the real problem is that too many people are concerned about the Political Correctness of the questions they ask.  If any of you have been following the debates in California you know there is a huge controversy over whether the current tenure system should be replaced with a merit based one.  In a merit based system if you don’t perform you may not have a job the next year.  The issue is how to evaluate a teacher’s performance.

Some staff in our district have definitely pushed the idea that we can just be objective and ask the hard questions, but as a culture I fear we are still to sensitive about the outcome.  In my opinion, to really move ahead you have to be willing to ask the tough questions and honestly look at the results.  Why not find out if there is any link between discipline, grades and perhaps where a student lives?  Other good questions are student performance vs the teachers and courses they have.  You always hear about teachers that excel with higher performing students as well as teachers that are great at motivating and educating “problem cases”.  Perhaps there is a link between student performance and debt they carry?  Perhaps there is a link between teacher’s overall class performance and the movement of the teacher’s position?

Imagine a time where a school district takes all this into account and is able to tailor a student’s journey through school based on the teachers and classmates that would be the most beneficial to everyone.  That would be pretty incredible.  As a parent I would love to hear that our school district is doing everything they can, including using BI, to help make sure that my sons and daughter, and their friends have the best environment and teaching for their strengths and weaknesses.  Perhaps a student is starting down a path that will lead to poor performance and more discipline events, and we can put in measures to help them correct their path before we are in the office discussing suspensions and possibly expulsion.  On the flip-side, imagine an incoming teacher knowing they are in a district where their position and students are fine-tuned to provide the most optimal teaching environment for everyone. 

To me that would be pretty incredible.

As some of you know it is my desire to become the Director of IT and this is one area I would really like to see improved.

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Matt Penner

2 thoughts on “Business Intelligence vs. Political Correctness in Education

  1. Matt,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I work for a school district in the San Gabriel Valley. We too are “data rich and information poor” only on the educational side. On the business side, we use ERM tools to manage flow and processes.
    Unfortunately, we cannot use these tools on the instructional side. Instead we upload data to SaaS vendors that repackage our data and sell it to us. For a small district, that is expensive.
    We too use Aeries and while I’ve found it good for harvesting data, it doesn’t have the analysis tools to present data. I feel education is ripe for on site BI tools but there are very few.

    Regarding the tough questions issue,I’ve found that many are willing to ask the tough questions but they are hampered by bureaucratic or legal nonsense. There are statistical links to a child’s socioeconomic status and student performance. However, the schools are barred from using those statistics because of the threat of cultural bias in the results. In addition, the “pie-in-the-sky” goals set by “No Child Left Behind” are dragging districts down a mud-hole called “Program Improvement” where every student has to be 100% proficient by 2014. Needless to say, every school in California will be a “Program Improvement” school by that time.

    There are levels of metrics and programs that help to put students in better places for their education. SELPA is one. IEP’s are another tool. AVID, IB, and TOP are others. ABI (Aeries Browser Interface) does provide the teacher with some raw student info, but it doesn’t provide in depth analysis.
    Getting teachers ready to teach is one of the most difficult tasks to do. How can you prepare to take on 30 different data points at the same time?

  2. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for the great comment.

    What are the ERM tools you use on the business side? Are these home grown or are you using a 3rd party package.

    I am about to change positions in my IT department, and one of the focuses is on getting more BI in our admin and educational side. We’ll see if that actually works out. I will be one of three developers/DBAs so we have a lot of custom processes internally. Hopefully this will be the start of a shift in how we actually use our data.

    What do you use for your educational side? I admit that our district also pays a 3rd party to analyze our data, mainly test data. I like how you put it, “Instead we upload data to SaaS vendors that repackage our data and sell it to us”. That’s a good summation, though I would believe they are selling you the analysis, not the data. I’ve asked more than once what exactly our vendor does for us that we can’t do internally. In the end I believe it’s has a little to do with two reasons: 1) That’s what we’ve always done and 2) we haven’t had the time to do it ourselves. With dwindling budgets (which is what caused me to move from the IT department to SELPA and in the first place) there just isn’t enough resources to cover the day to day tasks and custom work like this. Also, the company is always coming out with additional value in the analysis they give, so that’s viewed as a win. Perhaps in the future this is something we can look at moving internally. I really don’t know the cost. If it is minimal enough it may be a non-issue, as it may be worth paying a small fee for the work and innovation.

    I recently went to an event at Microsoft where vendors showed off their products. One of them used several key performance indicators to flag potential “at risk” students, including things like tardiness, absences, discipline events, etc. While no one wants to also bring socio-economic metrics into the mix (as they really shouldn’t have a basis) I think it is worth noting that the cards are stacked against individuals who are in split families or in a lower economic household. While these in themselves are not indicators of the success of a student it is evident that in these situations students don’t have as much time to study due to frequent changes in where they are staying, the need to work many hours in high school or simply a lack of personal transportation adding several “lost” hours throughout the year. Plus there is the lack of money for paid tutors. These (and many more) are all factors that do affect the pool of resources a student has access to.

    Keep in touch, I would really be interested in hearing what your district is putting into place technology-wise to get a handle on your data. I’ll do the same as we approach a solution ourselves.

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