Melvin Brown is superintendent of Montgomery Public Schools in Montgomery, Alabama.
Recently our school district had a student who transitioned to virtual learning to finish out his junior year. He transferred to a new school for his senior year, and in theory, his grades, credits and test scores should have seamlessly transitioned with him. However, because we had so many pieces of his data living in multiple locations, his credits didn’t follow him appropriately — an issue no one realized until he was well into his senior year.
Together with his new school, we were eventually able to remedy the situation, and he graduated. But unfortunately, he missed out on every one of his senior year celebratory activities. Had all of his student data been centrally located on a single platform, this never would have happened.
School districts derive student data from a myriad of sources, including state and local testing, student information software, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, individualized educational plans, home visits, enrichment programs and many more.
We are actively managing a dizzying number of platforms, and it can be a considerable undertaking to triangulate all of that information.
Disparate, siloed data can create significant hiccups for administrators — and potentially lead to critical oversights like the situation mentioned above. More common, however, is that we are missing a major opportunity when we house data on separate platforms: We are unable to develop a comprehensive portrait of the whole child, pinpoint the right interventions, and offer individualized support for each student when they need it most.
Without access to current, easy-to-understand data, schools tend to make decisions based on emotions, perception and history. This has the potential to create strategic plans and curriculum created from convenience, not facts, which can lead us down the wrong path.
A better way to leverage student data
Districts are rethinking their approach to data management, finding ways to streamline and integrate data from multiple platforms. Centralizing, consolidating and integrating all student data allows schools to see long-term trends and help us gain macro-level insights in developing our overarching strategic plans.
Additionally, with grades, test scores, evaluations, learning and graduation plans, and partner programs all housed in one place, educators can create individualized plans to support students how and when they need it.
For both macro and micro-level plans to be meaningful, it’s critical that information be available in real time. When data is siloed and isolated, if a student has an issue, it can take weeks — or longer — to gather data from multiple sources and uncover the true source of the challenge.
This time lapse can turn dashboards into rearview mirrors, offering us a reflection of what “should have been done.” Centralizing data onto one tool can alert us immediately when action needs to be taken, especially important if a student is struggling with wellness issues.
Consolidation creates connections
Additionally, when an entire district's data is integrated into a single dashboard, it allows us to easily share information with the community in a format that’s easy to digest.
In our district, most parents don’t have time to regularly sit down with administrators or sift through mountains of data. We have a very involved community, but most have not been aware of our overarching strategic goals — simply because we weren’t able to communicate them in an easy-to-understand way.
Simplifying complex information into smaller, more digestible pieces of information that highlight both accomplishments and areas for improvement can create transparency and trust, as well as increase engagement with key stakeholders. It can also encourage advocacy, as everyone will see the strategic direction we are taking and have a solid understanding of what the finish line looks like.
School districts are producing more data than ever before, and while administrators and educators have been spending hours putting together information from discordant systems or manually reentering information, it’s time we take a different approach. Software that integrates and streamlines data platforms can arm educators with the power to get back to doing what they do best — championing our students to success.