The 7 Pillars Needed to Build Game-Changing Education Systems
We partnered with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to implement a statewide, K-12 student data system. To scale a system at the state level, the foundation leveraged its past experience with districts and charter management organizations focused on performance. I’d like to say that the creation of the Texas Student Data System (TSDS) and the studentGPS® dashboards was a process that flowed smoothly without interruption or challenge.
But let’s face it: When you’re building a data system that, by the year 2020, will serve 1,237 school districts, 407,000 educators and 5 million students, things can get a little messy. The challenges and the daily surprises that came with scaling such a system were the types of things that kept us all up at night.
I could talk for days explaining the intricacies of the TSDS project, but if someone really wants insight on building a statewide, game-changing system, they’re best served by knowing—at the beginning of their process—what we have learned after six years.
The seven pillars:
- Commitment: Above all else, you have to remain committed to the mission of the project—benefitting students and teachers—because the choices along the way are complicated. It will require extraordinary patience at times. Secondarily, you need to remember four things: Vision, money, policy and people.
- Vision: You’ve got to have a clear, shared vision from the start, foresight and clear objectives, as well as the ability to see things accurately—and not allow perceptions or decisions to be clouded by misinformation or bias. Stay focused on your destination and route. Continuously evaluate plans and action items. You can’t always work in reactionary mode, but must allow enough flexibility to adjust your plan when it’s appropriate.
- Budget: When it comes to budgets, data systems are like home renovations. They always take at least two months longer and cost 20 percent more than you thought they would. Actually, TSDS would be the equivalent of remodeling the entire neighborhood!
- Change Management: State education agencies and school districts have to be realistic about the true cost of ownership of an educational data system. A comprehensive budget takes into consideration the entire system architecture, delays, scale (even when the original purchase is an off-the-shelf solution, which will always require customization), training and ongoing tech support needs. It also costs a lot of time and money to create a data-driven culture. Teachers must be given the support and time to figure out how the new intuitive tools can inform classroom instruction and benefit students. Shifting to a culture of data requires hands-on change management.
- Collaboration: Never underestimate the complexity of collaborating in a state education agency environment. Unfortunately, politics and policy have created behaviors and expectations that don’t align with student-centric learning outcomes. With TSDS, it seemed there was a new group of stakeholders every day to engage and then manage long-term – legislators, educators, state education agency IT decision makers, business decision makers, service centers and districts. With the dedicated project leaders at the TEA, we became masters at maneuvering through the bureaucratic complexities of legal agreements and contracts. All of those things have dramatic implications for the project timeline. Our initial shared focus with TEA was on people who were going to use and consume the data, but we learned that the long-term success of the system is also largely dependent upon those who will support it—including government.
- People: Remember, you’re not only building a system of data, you’re also building a system of people to understand, analyze and use the data. The right people—leaders, internal team members, partners, vendors— with the right capabilities shape teams with the capacity to implement a system of this scale. Hire the wrong team, and your project will fail.
- Advocacy: The final thing to note is that educators are the ones who’ll put the data to use, so demonstrate the power of the dashboards by showing teachers their own students’ data, not Jane Doe’s. You absolutely have to invest in training– but enable educators to become data advocates first. Gather every teacher, and show them how the data will help them help their students. Show them the power of student profiles, and time and time again, you’ll see teachers get excited about what’s possible.
— Jami O’Toole, Program Officer, US Education