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IT Leadership
11:06 AM

Using Business Intelligence To Change Student Lives

Nashville Metropolitan schools are building a framework for student success using a data analysis foundation.

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What happens when you blend BI with the Three Rs? In the case of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, you get a steady improvement in student results and national recognition that something good is going on.

According to the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), the Nashville school district has improved student outcomes by analyzing the data generated in normal classroom activities. DQC is a nonprofit organization that "supports state policymakers and other key leaders to promote the effective use of data to improve student achievement."

Laura Hansen, director of information management and decision support for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, told InformationWeek that the benefits started showing up in real terms when many different data sources were brought together in a data warehouse that became the source for analysis.

What kind of benefits? In a telephone interview, Margie Johnson, business intelligence coordinator for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, told InformationWeek that measured benefits include:

  • Increased graduation rate (decreased dropout rate)
  • The data warehouse has an early warning system built into it to help identify at-risk students. The number of at-risk students has decreased over the years.
  • Increased attendance rates. Decreased chronic absence rate.
  • Decreased discipline incidents.
  • Schools using the data-informed approach see increases in student achievement.

"K through 12 is known for its silos," Hansen said in a phone interview. "We’ve gone to a data warehouse where we focus on getting data down to the classroom level so the teachers can use the data for instruction in an actionable way. We had the framework. It wasn’t what we needed out of the box, but we had the code. We have technical staff and funded more technical folks and a business analyst to build this out to see how the data could be used by the teachers."

The data warehouse isn't enormous by major enterprise standards, but it contains data that can guide teachers, administrators, support staff, and parents in working with students. The loading database is approximately 127 GB, with a 37 GB reporting database. That reporting database contains 313,486,012 records that are used for the "business intelligence" analysis used by all those who support the students.

For example, an after-school initiative promoted by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean receives (with permission of the student's parents or guardians) access to the data in order to support each student's educational goals. The Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) receives student report card data, attendance data, and formative assessment results to tailor ongoing after-school tutoring to the student. In a report by DQC, northeast NAZA zone director Adam Yockey is quoted saying:

Afterschool providers want to be seen as a partner and a support for what’s going on in the school day, and without data, particularly data in real time, it’s hard to partner ... If you only get data at the end of a school year, you lost an entire year that you could’ve been working intentionally with that student.

Top to Bottom Support

Johnson said that it's not enough to simply provide information to the teachers; it's important that they know what the information means and how they can make use of what the information is telling them. The district hired 12 "data coaches" to help explain the information and its use to teachers across schools using the "Over-the-Counter Data" (OTCD) approach developed by Jenny Grant Rankin, PhD.

"We only had 12 data coaches, but we had 150 schools, and it’s tough to get information out to everyone. The OTCD stuff has info on the reports that are available, what they mean, and how they can be used," Johnson said. "We’ve given people a lot of data under the assumption that a lot of people understand what it means, but it’s so new that most people don’t really know what it means. [Rankin] talks about building the supports within the data system."

Those efforts include continued support for data coaches and a monthly newsletter that highlights success stories and strategies taken from the book Got Data? Now What? by Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman. "We did some fishbone analysis on what barriers we needed to remove to get adaptive inquiry," said Johnson. "We’re now trying to adopt a common language about what all this is, so we can get past the buzzwords. We started the work last year, but it’s a journey."

Hansen said that support from administrators and executives is critical for building support from teachers and staff. Her position was initially funded by a Race to the Top grant, but has been continued through ongoing investment by the school district. The 12 data coach positions were also funded by Race to the Top grants that are ending this year. "Now we have more schools becoming interested and the schools themselves are starting to look at funding positions as data coaches."

Ahead of the Class

Lise Sparrow, associate for policy and advocacy at the DQC, said that the organization became interested in the Nashville story because the district focused on more than simply gathering the data. "In a lot of districts they’re so inundated with data that they have a lot, but they can’t really do anything with the data," Sparrow said in a telephone interview. "We’ve highlighted the incredible conversations that are happening between teachers and students, and teachers and parents, so that they understand what the data means and what it means for the student’s success."

The DQC is promoting the Nashville story as an example of what more districts should be doing with student data. "It’s really hard work, and people look to Nashville because they’ve created a culture around data," Chris Kingsley, associate director for local policy and advocacy, said in a phone interview. When asked about the factors preventing more districts from adopting the Nashville model, Kingsley pointed in unexpected directions.

"I’m sure there’s a fiscal element to the barriers but it’s not the largest area. People in the area say there’s not the technology or the tools. One of the things that seem to be true is that schools don’t need more systems, they need more systems integrators," Kingsley said. "When Laura talks about the data warehouse, that was really key. They took a lot of different systems and turned them into a single business intelligence system. It takes thoughtfulness and contracting with the right people."

Ultimately, though, Kingsley said it's about having a vision and following through on the consistent work required to bring that vision to life. "It takes really smart school leaders," said Kingsley. "You have to take desired outcomes and tie them back to the classroom. Continuous improvement sounds buzzword-y, but it really is about tying the data back to what’s happening in the classroom. You have to train and equip teachers to deal with this, and they’ve been doing it consistently in Nashville for the last five or six years."

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
3/4/2015 | 5:36:09 PM
Informed decisions
This is really interesting. I'm curious about the cost of these programs and longterm success.
User Rank: Ninja
3/3/2015 | 3:04:08 PM
Re: Using Business Intelligence To Change Student Lives
We hear a lot about BI as the centerpiece of all the Big Data and analytics trends that have been developing over the last several years, so it's nice to hear about a use case that trickles down to the non-business world and helps everyone. It sounds like an interesting marriage between BI and education - there are whole positions in the business world dedicated to understanding, stewarding, and analyzing this data. Grafting those positions into a school system sounds like a project in and of itself. I found myself agreeing with Mr. Kingsley - budgets are a constraint, but not because the systems themselves cost money. Indeed, there are lots of great free options these days, and discounted licenses for schools. It's the cost of adding any positions for school budgets that are bursting at the seams - you can't ask existing staff to do it, because their workloads are, too. Education for staff is key.

The DQC has a state-by-state comparison on their website where you can check how you stack up, and I was happy to see that my home state, Massachusetts, is a bit above the curve with 8 of 10 important steps the DQC recommends being taken. Maybe that's no big surprise considering our technology pedigree, but some of the other high scorers are - Kansas has 9, for example. One thing that was a bit odd was a lack of detail on the kinds of data collected, or how, although the results speak for themselves . They insist on not using 'data' as just a buzzword, yet, the people in the video just keep repeating it, even in odd places. Grades are a given, but what else? Attendance records? Self-assesments? Are they filtering this info by students' ethnicity? Economic status? This does sound like good news, but for such a focus on specifics, there seems to be a strange lack of them.
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/2/2015 | 6:20:14 PM
What works for secondary public school students also works for adults
The Apollo Education Group did this to try to reduce turnover among the 250,000 adult students attending classes, mainly at the University of Phoenix.It collected 500 GBs of data a day on attendance and other signs of participation and fed it into its data warehouse system. Results to be determined at a future date.
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