Oracle's Hurd Touts San Diego Schools' BI Success

School district used in-depth analysis and rapid response times to make its data more useful, improve student attendance record, OpenWorld crowd hears.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

October 4, 2012

6 Min Read

Oracle vs. Salesforce: Social Acquisition Face-off
Oracle vs. Salesforce: Social Acquisition Face-off (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The rate that accumulated data is consuming storage means either some data will get discarded, or the average IT budget will expand by 4% a year, up from 1-2% today, Oracle president Mark Hurd told an audience at Oracle Open World Thursday.

"Data is coming at you from all directions" from both inside and outside the company, Hurd said in his keynote address. It's being collected from comments about the company in social media, as well as from the internal general ledger system and customer visits to the company website.

IT currently devotes 10% of its budget to buying and running storage. With the pace of unstructured data creation accelerating, storage managers will find new data accumulating faster than they can store it, given storage's cost of $7,500-$9,000 per TB, Hurd said. Trying to capture the newly available data will prompt a further expansion of the IT budget at the rate 4% a year, Hurd predicted. IT can put some brakes on the expansion through rigorous use of data deduplication and compression, available in Oracle products, but they can't escape it entirely.

Even as Hurd warned of the rising tide of data, he highlighted customers who coped with one big data problem or another via an Oracle product. One of the more unlikely big data users Oracle showcased was Darryl Lagace, CIO of the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest in California and one of the 20 largest in the nation.

In an interview prior to Hurd's keynote, Lagace said the school district had a big data problem because it collects lots of data on 130,000 students, but little of that data could be put to use in direct ways to affect outcomes in the district. The district has area superintendents, each tracking performance at 30-40 schools, but the district's IT staff was hard pressed to come up with the reports they needed to tell whether each building was on track to perform as expected.

[ Learn what else happened at Oracle's 2012 conference. See Oracle Open World: 6 Rants and Raves. ]

The district has experienced five consecutive years of budget cuts, said Lagace, putting more pressure on IT to provide resources that make up for the diminishing ranks of teachers and other district staff. One response was to generate scorecards on each student as they enter the ninth grade so that both students and parents know whether a child is on track to meet college admission requirements. In conversations with parents, a district official could query the district's student database, but the answer might take "two to three minutes to come back." During the wait, the focus of the conversation might change and the point of using information to enlist parental support for a precollege course load could be lost. The wait times were long enough that "we saw a steep decline in the use of the system by school staff," said Lagace.

District IT managers looked at alternatives and decided to buy an Exalytics in-memory database machine, a four CPU server (each with 10 Xeon cores) in a box with a terabyte of high-speed memory. It ran the Oracle TimesTen in-memory database system. With the ability to place all of the district's student data in memory, the database could deliver answers to queries on college-bound students in seconds, said Lagace. The system uses its built-in scorecard program to visually present the data on each student.

The school district also uses Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition to track student attendance and address issues behind chronic low attendance. The information is needed because school attendance is closely correlated with grades. Failure to attend is often a symptom of a hidden problem with language or math skills. Being able to identify suspect areas allows interventions by teachers, counselors, and principals to help keep a child in school, and good attendance greatly improves the likelihood of graduation, said Lagace.

He acknowledged there is a strong secondary reason for keeping an eye on attendance. The state reimburses school districts based on average daily attendance, and each individual absence drives down the average. For a student with perfect attendance, the district receives $5,786 per year in school aid from the state, according to information on the district's website. Put just six days of absence into the equation and the reimbursement from the state drops $232 to $5,554 for the same student. Add chronic poor attendance for hundreds of students, and valuable aid goes down the drain.

By spotting and addressing poor attendance early in the school year, school officials were able to turn around many chronic cases and improve the district's overall record. In the first six months using the business intelligence system, it gained 0.5% in attendance, a feat duplicated in the second six-month period of use. That led to 1% better attendance going into state calculations on aid, and an added $6 million for the district.

"The $6 million goes to keeping teachers in the classroom, keeping classes smaller," said Lagace. By zeroing in on absences occurring within the same family, school officials could frequently spot a high school student absent on the same day as a sibling in elementary school, with the auxiliary evidence suggesting the high school student was standing in for a working single parent unable to stay home with a sick child. Keeping the high school student in school, despite a sick sibling, quietly became one of the district's goals, and the finding went into the business intelligence system as a set of circumstances to watch out for, said Lagace.

The result has been a lowering of San Diego's drop-out rate from above 8% to 5.8% at the end of the school year last spring. "We have the lowest drop-out rate for an urban district in the state," said Lagace. State superintendent of education Tom Torlakson is expected to cite San Diego Unified for that accomplishment soon, he added.

Some of the information used by Exalytics and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition comes from outside the school district, such as the requirements of California's state university system that must be met for a student to be accepted. Getting that information into the district's system and showing it as a set of charts on each child, as the scorecard system does, "gives ownership of that issue to the students and parents." Without that presentation, both are sometimes "not tuned in to the issue" until it's too late.

A system that was pilot tested on 500 students last April and May was rolled out to all high school students in the district this fall. As Hurd suggested, data in growing quantities is now available. "Getting information to the right people in the right place at the right time" is still the issue.

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About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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