A homegrown design for data warehousing: a district customizes its own process for generating detailed information about students in real time
Terry J. Thompson
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 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.
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. (See related article, page 22.) 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 also worked 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 has grown. School administrators also create data “science fair boards” to share their schools’ improvements with colleagues during the annual administrative renewal meeting.
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 Solutions, 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. These data, along with other student data, were transmitted to the data warehouse 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 have been 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 Solutions, 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 parent 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.
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 he is spending time 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!”
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 the environment reflect their needs.
Some of the ways the PEP data have 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.
Our To-Do List
Our data warehouse is 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 become 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.
RELATED ARTICLE: Personalized education plans for parents.
BY KAREN CARTER AND MICHELLE WALKER
In a society of blended families, separated spouses and two working parents, schools must find new ways to maintain strong family partnerships.
In Wayne Township, parents can be brought squarely into the center of their child’s education through our school district’s Internet-based program called the Personalized Education Plan. This password-protected program is available to any administrator, teacher, student or parent with legal rights to a child’s educational records.
PEP reflects daily student data vital to parent communication. It also maintains a student’s performance history and can display cumulative data on nearly all screens. Parents can view their child’s information through an online connection from home or work. They can access grades, assessments, course schedules, attendance, discipline records, student interests, goals, learning preferences, lunch account balances and much more.
PEP has become a valuable tool, allowing all users to see developing trends, identify interventions and reward success.
For families new to the school district or for students who are changing schools, PEP provides a direct link to our district transportation system. This link provides bus stop location, pickup and drop-off times and a detailed map of the neighborhood.
PEP displays considerable academic information. Weekly grades and individual assignments are a powerful component. Parents can intervene early and support progress at home. Through PEP, grades are made available prior to parent-teacher conferences. During the course of the year, parents and teachers can conduct informative conferences by phone while looking at identical PEP screens.
Under the increased standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind, parents often find it a challenge to interpret the test reports. In PEP we have created a user-friendly display with clearly marked lines for each increment of achievement. Parents can see at a quick glance how their child’s score compared to our state’s passing cut score. The display allows for easy interpretation of current testing, as well as providing a historical perspective. Parents can see with the click of the mouse how their child is progressing from year to year on standardized tests.
Recently, our secondary school students were invited to view this assessment graph individually with their homeroom teachers. The teacher and student were able to hold a constructive conversation about the student’s testing history, discuss areas of strength and need and create a plan of improvement. Teachers believe this was a powerful practice and discovered increased student motivation toward testing. We hope parents, too, will have this type of discussion with their children now that all stakeholders are able to easily access and understand important test data.
One aspect of PEP that sets it apart from any other program of its kind is a parent and student inventory. In the student personal information area of PEP, all students from grades K-12 are given the opportunity to complete three customized electronic surveys that address individual interests, goals and study habits. The survey results can be viewed by students, parents, teachers and administrators.
By reading their children’s responses to each survey, parents learn much about their child’s preferences. Numerous parents of teen-agers have been delighted by the information obtained through PEP. When communication at home is a challenge, parents can turn to PEP to get to know their child better. By knowing their children’s study habits and preferred style of learning, parents can better assist their children with homework.
As technology becomes more pervasive in our school district, the power of its use as a school-home communication tool is expanding. PEP certainly has made its mark as a means to helping families support their children’s educational endeavors.
Karen Carter is the facilitator of the Personalized Education Plan in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, 1220 S. High School Road, Indianapolis, IN 46241. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Michele Walker is coordinator of math, science and assessment in Wayne Township.
RELATED ARTICLE: Building our data warehouse.
BY PAUL KREITL
There’s an expression that says, “Nothing succeeds like an idea whose time has come.” That is certainly true with using data warehouses in public schools.
Even though the concept of the data warehouse had its beginnings in the 1970s, most of the ensuing three decades saw its use only in big business and government primarily because of the need for large mainframes and programming staffs. With the proliferation of powerful but relatively inexpensive servers and complex relational database software in the early 1990s, the stage was set for widespread educational use of data warehouses.
Yet even in the late 1990s the term “data warehouse” was virtually unknown in the K-12 arena. (Just try a database search with that phrase!) Even though the stage was set, the curtain of need had not risen. The need turned out to be data-driven decision making. When educators discovered their own data could be used for making informed and valid decisions, the time was ripe for using technology to gather, manipulate and report on that data.
In 1997 the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township began investigating the use of a data warehouse for our needs. At that time there were no viable solutions for K-12 districts our size. Only a couple of large school districts with existing mainframe computers and multimillion dollar technology budgets had even attempted it. Therefore, to find a solution, we would have to create it.
We began initial concept designs in 1999 based on our own discussions and sketches on a legal pad. Our first steps was to lay out sample objectives. Our superintendent wanted to be able to pull up student demographics, attendance, grades, discipline and test scores on one screen–even while on the phone with the student’s parent so he would immediately be informed about the student’s performance in school.
The type of student reports he had in mind were these:
* a list of 7th-grade students with GPAs above 3.0 and who scored above the 95th percentile in math and language arts on a standardized test;
* an on-screen report on how students were performing on standardized tests and school tests;
* graphs showing how discipline relates to gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status;
* a graph plotting free-lunch students and how their grades have changed over the last five years;
* a graph of the last three years of 3rd graders’ grades following implementation of a new educational program.
After having some ideas of what our district leadership wanted this system to do, we set out to find the right tools for creating it. At first we used the same software tools as the mega-districts. These tools offered a professional looking user interface, but because they were not web-based and were licensed per seat, it became costly to grow past the prototype stage. Therefore we made the radical decision to make our system web-based, which enabled us to access data any place, any time.
Today, that capacity sounds so natural but then it was of considerable risk because not many web-based tools were available for development, and it was uncertain the role the Internet would play in this type of data application.
We decided to outsource the actual programming for the data warehouse. While we created the look and feel of the screens, we did not have the expertise in our technology department to do the programming. Our emphasis was and continues to be ease of use for even occasional users. This reduces training and increases use.
After selecting the right software tools and database, the programmers went to work. Amazingly, our school district had its first functional data warehouse in six months. Our end users were able to create reports correlating standardized test scores with grades, attendance, discipline and demographics. Most importantly, though, central-office and school administrators could instantly access this information from their desktops–in contrast to waiting hours or many days for reports from our technology department in order to return phone calls from concerned parents, board members or the news media.
Today we have a full-featured system of student information that is used by administrators, teachers, students and parents. We use our data warehouse for sending data to other database applications, for state and federal reporting and for empowering our stakeholders to make sure the decisions they are making are informed ones.
Paul Kreitl is director of technology in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, 1220 S. High School Road, Indianapolis, IN 46241. E-mail: email@example.com.
RELATED ARTICLE: Leadership and organization for technology.
BY DOUGLAS B. REEVES
Turn back the clock 100 years. As a superintendent in the early years of the 20th century, you must deal with the latest technological innovation, the No. 2 pencil. How will you respond?
Will you put the pencils under the care of the business manager? Might you go a step further and create a Department of No. 2 Pencils? Will you evaluate your success as an educational leader based on the quantity of No. 2 pencils in the cabinet at the end of the school year?
While these questions may seem preposterous, the answers take on serious consequences when we recognize that in the early years of the 21st century, computers are simply the No. 2 pencils of our era. This analogy has some specific implications for school leaders who wish to maximize the impact of technology on learning.
Who’s in Charge?
* Get organized.
If technology is a tool for learning, then the central-office departments responsible for the selection, use, training and maintenance of technology must be subordinate to the chief academic officer of the school district. Placing technology departments within the business office made sense perhaps when the district had one computer and its primary purpose was accounting and payroll.
Today, the primary purpose of technology is to support teaching, learning, assessment and analysis–all functions that must directly support instructional leadership. Astonishingly, many districts still organize the central office as if they had one computer and the business manager owned it.
* Don’t let Hal take control.
In the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the human-like computer Hal takes over the spacecraft, dooming the astronauts aboard. Hal’s chilling words, “I can’t let you do that, Dave,” could have been spoken today to a superintendent. For valid instructional reasons, school leaders want to merge databases that include classroom grades and state tests, adjust grading practices to avoid the use of the average, or make individual student records accessible not only to the classroom teacher, but also to teachers in previous and succeeding grades.
But in response to such reasonable requests, some computer programmers are ready to say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” The first time that happens, it’s time to pull the plug on Hal and make clear that the educational leaders, not the programmers, are in charge.
* Find the weakest link.
What would you think if the director of food services always avoided the school cafeterias and preferred to eat lunch at an elegant restaurant? How about technology directors who can make new programs work perfectly on the newest and most sophisticated computer in the school district–perhaps the one residing on their desks–but utterly fail when asked to deploy the program to principals and teachers.
Require vendors to demonstrate that their product will work on the equipment in your oldest and most poorly equipped classroom. If the proposed product cannot pass this “weakest link” test, then you will never achieve systemwide technology success. Better yet, ensure that requests for maintenance, training and delivery of new equipment give priority to the classrooms and schools.
* Paper still matters.
In observing schools in all 50 states and on five continents, I remain surprised at the value of handmade charts and graphs showing student progress. In the Norfolk, Va., Public Schools, Superintendent Denise Schnitzer combines technological sophistication and web-based accountability reports with handmade classroom-based charts that show student progress on a monthly basis. These handmade charts are not owned by a single “data guru” but are the product of collective work of many teachers, administrators and students.
Researchers have noted the power of the somewhat messy, manual and dissentingly non-technological power of frequent assessment of student work, immediately followed by adjustments in teaching practices, curriculum, scheduling and assessment.
* Ask “so what?” every day.
Any technology initiative is only as good as the ability of teachers and principals to make meaningful decisions based on the data. Districts are drowning in data created by a superabundance of technology reports. But in many cases, teachers will spend hours looking at data and assembling notebooks full of paper and then return to the classroom and do the same thing that they would have done without the data.
Every conversation about data, whether large-scale analyses from the central office or an individual student analysis from within a school, must conclude with the “so what?” questions. What will we do differently next week? How will our lesson plans change? What different teaching strategies will we use? How will the agenda of our next faculty meeting change?
When teachers and principals are asking and answering these questions, then we should expect to see messy lesson plans, reflecting mid-course adjustments. Most importantly, we should expect a direct answer to the question, “What are you doing differently this month based on the information you have about your students?”
* Weed the garden.
We invest in technology because it promises to offer efficiency and save precious time. Too frequently, however, technology initiatives become just one more layer of work for administrators and teachers. For every new technology initiative, we should ask the question, “What can I stop doing as a result of this new tool?”
For example, once I have e-mail for all faculty members, can I stop the time-wasting practice of making oral announcements in faculty meetings? Once we have e-mail for all parents and students, can we stop plundering the forests to provide paper announcements? Advances in computerized grade books, assessments and other programs must be accompanied by explicit reductions in other activities.
Douglas Reeves is chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment, P.O. Box 246, Swampscott, MA 01907. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of Accountability for Learning: How Teachers and School Leaders Take Charge.
Terry Thompson is superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, 1220 S. High School Road, Indianapolis, IN 46241. E-mail: email@example.com. Karen Gould is the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
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