Utilizing Student Information Systems as a lever for Change

By Robert Dillon, Director of Innovative Learning, School District of University City

Robert Dillon, Director of Innovative Learning, School District of University City

Rethinking the potential power of the student information system has been central to the technology/data/assessment mission at the School District of University City. Over the past few years, there has been a growing recognition that data when packaged right and consumed with intention can bring fresh insights to the work happening in classrooms. This perspective has allowed the district to pursue its desire humanize, personalize, and problematize the learning ecosystem.

This journey started with a deep dive into the data currently in the system. Most data gardens are full of weeds, which can choke out the possibilities of efficient data use. Student information systems require constant care to keep current data accurate, but the district also wanted to make sure that historical and legacy data was also being trimmed and resized as access and use of this data when needed was unwieldy and inefficient. This process helped digital safety and security as well because greater intention was given to access to systems. In addition, this work helped to make historical comparisons more valid and reliable as data between systems and over the years received the same treatments at the end of the year.

Once a greater trust in our data was built, both within the department and with teachers and leaders, the district was in a better position to use our student information system as a powerful lever for change. This began with a shift in how the district viewed student information. Each

piece of student data is a star in the sky, beautiful in its own right, but once you begin to see the constellations and the galaxies created by the data connected, there are stories that can emerge. We believe that our student information system houses amazing stories of hard work, achievement, collaboration, and success. It is our role to uncover and mine these stories because in doing so, we create positive momentum and make deposits into a positive, productive learning culture.

Stories are built on images, so we have worked to dedicate ourselves to moving from a 2-D model of data with numbers and spreadsheets to a more 3-D model that better visualizes our data in interactive, dynamic charts and graphs. Doing this has given more people, more frequent access to the true data story of the district, and it has helped to uncover stories about individual students that may have been lost in the aggregate. This push for images has also made data more personal as all individuals in data conversations are now seeing data as not a collection of average, but as a collection of individual stories that have a face and a name. In addition to our data visualization efforts, we are also looking for ways to bring data to the public as infographic, so that all in the community have an accurate picture of our data story.

"There is so much more that our information can do to maximize teacher effectiveness and student success if we reimagine data"

Previous to this work, misinformation was emerging about the data picture of the district. It is human nature to craft conclusions based on available data or use confirmation bias with the data points that are more visible, but this can cause a negative impact on the school district as individuals and groups begin to pursue solution to unclear, undefined problems. This can also cause a negative impact on morale as well as the success narrative in the district. Our work around using the student information system to bring accurate, holistic data to more individuals that lead to productive, meaningful conversations has led to the district breaking through some old mental models about race and achievement as well as the perceived successes between elementary schools. With limited time and resources in schools, we can’t have data leading us down a trail that wanders and meanders. Much of our work has brought focus to data conversations, and it has kept us from being data driven down the wrong road to data rich with usable information for change.

Two other positive outcomes have come from this work to use our student information system as a powerful lever for change. It is certainly helpful for districts to have a system that is easy to navigate, creates no surprises at high stress times, and allows for flexibility and agility as a school system evolves in its use of data. Lots of systems can do this, so it becomes essential for districts to continue to look for ways to move from data is a cemetery that needs quiet and tidy to data as a carnival full of exploration, color, and energy. As we shifted our thinking and the thinking of others in the district, we were able to create connections and integrations to all of our other systems. This made our student information system multi-directional and a powerful force in activating other systems with dynamic rostering and automation. Our carnival of data also pushed us to value new data sources that could be woven into the information fabric of the district including compelling data on student social emotional health and a more robust set of success metrics around learning. With the ability to overlay and examine how various data impacts other variable, the power of the work increased and the use of student information for change intensified.

Districts looking to optimize their systems around data shouldn’t call mission accomplished when everyone can login, get parent information, and do grades. There is so much more that our information can do to maximize teacher effectiveness and student success if we reimagine data and begin to shape solutions through story.

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