by Stewart Deck

Learning From Schools on Data Warehousing

Nov 01, 200013 mins
Data Warehousing

Reader ROI

Learn how schools are implementing data warehouses

Determine the value of data warehousing for your enterprise

On a hot September afternoon, a honeybee buzzes through an open window in a Broward County, Fla., elementary classroom. It quietly lands on a student’s desk. The third grader unwittingly squashes the bee under his elbow, getting stung in the process. In the ensuing tumult, the teacher, Mr. Darwin, has the presence of mind to tap out a query on his computer, accessing a file from the school district’s data warehouse that tells him the student is not allergic to bee stings. An ice cube is the only remedy he needs.

After the students have gone home for the day, Darwin brings up their test scores from the same data warehouse that helped him respond appropriately to the bee sting. He can see how his new students performed on the previous year’s curriculum tests and what areas might need particular attention. Darwin then reshapes his lesson plans for the fall term, adding more emphasis on addition skills and reading aloud, to better suit his students’ needs.

Broward County is one of a small but growing number of school districts that are implementing data warehouses as part of an effort to quietly reform education processes and change the way schools operate. Sound a bit like a corporation reinventing itself? Perhaps you wouldn’t compare a school district to a large corporate enterprise, but the numbers support the metaphor. This “business” has 248 branch offices, more than 25,000 employees, 179 IT staffers and 67,000 workstations.

“We’re an information-intensive industry,” explains Joseph Kirkman, sounding quite corporate. He is the executive director of the education services department in Broward County, the fifth largest in the nation. “Our big question is how can we make all this information available to all the right people on a day in, day out, utility-type basis.”

Jim Woolen also knows a thing or two about expanding an already sizeable enterprise. He’s the CIO for Gwinnett County, Ga.’s public school system, which serves 110,000 students, builds 250 new classrooms every year to handle the growing tide of new students and is in the midst of a five-year, $95 million program to build a technology infrastructure. Many of Woolen’s infrastructure improvements are being used in a way that CIOs across the nation—not just in schools, but in businesses too—can learn from.

Kirkman and Woolen’s most notable undertakings are data warehousing projects. Just the fact that public school systems have the vision and the resources to undertake the task of combining data from those “permanent student records” (the ones that were always mentioned with a doomsday tone of voice) with classroom, teacher, demographic, program and testing data is perhaps surprising. The most significant aspect of both projects is their plans for examining and acting on the data. Both school districts have made a commitment to not just study the data, but also use their new warehouses to change the way they operate. No longer do teachers have to call school nurses and wait for them to rummage through filing cabinets full of folders.

Heavy-Duty Homework

Although the complex process of data warehousing is a relatively new concept for school systems, it’s well established in corporations of all sizes. Every business keeps records and analyzes them for clues about their business effectiveness. “I’d be surprised if a huge portion, 90 percent or more, of the Fortune 2000 didn’t have some form of data warehouse or data collection and analysis system,” says Wayne Eckerson, director of education and research at the Gaithersburg, Md.-based Data Warehousing Institute. “But the real question is, how many of them are actually putting them to any effective use? The numbers drop way off for that.”

School districts are looking into data warehousing because of the complexity of their task. Instead of poring through data on profit centers and analyzing production and revenue line information, schools need to examine everything that impacts learning, from Headstart programs to teacher training to textbook selection. “This forces you to try to track every piece of everything that could possibly be involved with student learning,” says Bob Moore, director of information and technology for the Blue Valley Unified School District 229 in Overland Park, Kan. “That’s where data warehousing and good analysis can come into play.” Moore is also a director with the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington, D.C.-based group of state and local education agencies that promote telecommunications use in public schools.

Even though a data warehouse might do the job, it isn’t just something you can buy, pop into place and expect results. The scale, cost and requirements of such systems are enormous. Broward County’s Kirkman says he’ll spend between $3 million and $4 million on technology, network infrastructure and data preparation before everything is complete.

Broward County received a Reinventing Education Grant from IBM. Gwinnett County Public Schools is a customer of IBM. Jane Lockett, education principal for the Americas in IBM Global Services, Business Intelligence and Consulting Services, says the idea behind the grant program is to help schools find and prioritize their data, then mold it into useable forms with logistical business models. IBM also provides an entire data warehousing package designed for educational institutions called Insight at School. “Our goal is to help schools see facts and trends so that they can make decisions in a different way than they ever have been able to in the past,” Lockett says.

Even with this type of funding and technical assistance, schools are not rushing into data warehousing projects. Lockett says that as of late last year, only 15 percent of the approximately 12,000 school districts nationwide had even begun looking into data warehousing.

Jim Hirsh, CIO and executive director of technology for the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas, agrees that data warehousing is still early in the adoption stage for school districts. “There’s more recognition now of the importance of using data that impacts the classrooms. But by and large, it’s more in the recognition stage than even in the formative stage,” he says. “There are shining lights that have begun warehousing projects, and some districts are getting some of the hardware and software [for data analysis] in place, but the ability to use those tools appropriately is still at the beginning stage.”

If at First You Don’t Reform…

School systems that have started data warehousing believe that technology may bring about reform not just for their own districts, but also for education nationwide. Over the years, repeated attempts at reform have addressed the sacred icon of classroom processes. Many people cringe when they remember attempted reforms like interdisciplinary open classrooms with no walls or grade-free studies. Those reforms stalled, the walls went back up and letter grades were reinstituted. Technology reform is different though because it doesn’t force change upon teaching processes but instead works beneath and within the established system to support what’s already there.

David Lankes, director of the Information Institute of Syracuse, a Syracuse University-based organization for digital education information services, says technology has the power to lead reform. “The real magic will happen when a kind of holistic management of a school system’s data—from basic inputs all the way to evaluation—occurs,” Lankes says. “Right now, it’s certainly an emerging dream, and it’s one that’s being actively worked on. But it’s much more of an objective than a reality at this point. Any school system that’s reached that point is one of the first to get there.”

Both the Gwinnett and Broward County school systems think they’re well on their way. “Technology can change everything in a classroom,” Kirkman says. “Instructional resources can be revamped by technology, how students and teachers interact can be revamped by technology. And it not only can be, but we’re going to revamp them if that’s what we find from using our warehouse.”

Kirkman’s technology rollout isn’t small potatoes, either. His team has rewired all 248 schools, upgraded the telephone system and installed a phone in every classroom, built an ATM T1 network to connect AS/400 servers at every school, connected at least four computers in every classroom and outfitted every teacher with a laptop. Behind the scenes, the team has also built a help desk running Vantive software to handle questions and calls from teachers and other system users. Internal analysts use Brio Technology query tools to pull reports from the data warehouse. The school’s primary system uses a three-tiered architecture with an IBM mainframe at the core to handle the influx of up to 10,000 new students each year.

Woolen and his team have built a similar technology infrastructure in Gwinnett County by installing a computer in each classroom, rebuilding the school system’s media centers, hooking up each school’s computer labs to the Internet and installing a server in each school that links to a central data storage system. He’s currently on the third step of a seven-step, $95 million project.

Because Gwinnett County is in the pilot stages of installing its data warehouse, Woolen is still getting input from teachers and school principals about what they would like to get out of the system. “Principals are telling us they would like to make solid curriculum decisions, like how many ESL [English as a second language] teachers to have and where to spend their curriculum resources based on real data, rather than estimates and extrapolations, so we’re going to help them do that,” he says.

To generate useful results, Woolen is filling the warehouse with everything he can get his hands on: enrollment data, scheduling information, test and medical histories (all with proper privacy and security safeguards, of course) and teacher data. “We are one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States,” he says, “so we feel it’s important to be able to both plan for growth and recognize what’s happening in our schools quickly so that we can adjust quickly.”

Kirkman’s data warehouse has been up and running for more than a year now, and it’s producing results that have led directly to changes in the way the system operates. Katherine Blasik, executive director of research and development for the school system, says her group uses the warehouse to answer far more questions and detailed queries than it ever could before. “In the past, when we’d want to evaluate our summer term programs or a behavior change program, we’d spend up to 20 programmer days bringing all that data together, and 75 percent of that time was just in building the analysis file from mainframe data on tape,” Blasik says. “Now we can do the entire thing in about 20 minutes. It allows us to put our evaluators’ real analytical expertise to use instead of making them part-time programmers.”

Blasik’s group recently studied the effectiveness of a truancy intervention pilot program. Using reports generated from the data warehouse, her team examined clusters of attendance histories and pinpointed specific truancy patterns and how the pilot program affected those patterns. After demonstrating the program’s effectiveness, they recommended implementing the same program systemwide.

“We’ve also been able to view trends in performance statistics and provide evaluations on how effective block scheduling has been,” says Cary Sutton, director of research services for Broward County schools. Sutton compared Broward schools that offered traditional classroom schedules to those that used block scheduling and looked through data including grades, scores on advanced placement tests, satisfaction scores and attendance to see if alternative scheduling programs were worth pursuing. For certain schools and types of students, block scheduling has tangible benefits—including the opportunity to graduate faster or take more enrichment classes—so the district will continue to use and refine block scheduling.

Sutton has also used the warehouse to track the number and type of critical behavior incidents in schools. “We’ve been able to show how effective metal detector installations and alternative discipline programs have been,” he says. For some schools, a metal detector might be the best solution for certain problems. But for others, arbitration or anger counseling would be better, and Sutton can now pinpoint the differences. With the data warehouse, Sutton can view and compare trends in specific types of discipline incidents school by school, which would take forever without a data warehouse. By analyzing trends in such incidents, he can see if schoolwide counseling reduced the number of confrontations or if other solutions should be explored.

Sutton and Blasik are also pleased to have the tools to evaluate other programs they previously have been unable to measure. Last year, they were called upon to help determine the effectiveness of internal remedial instruction. By comparing the test scores of large groups of students who had received specialized instruction outside of school with others who had stayed within the school, they found the schools’ own programs were doing a very sound job. Instructional resources were then focused on developing these internal programs rather than looking for outside help.

Extra Credit

Enduring such overhauls and implementations hasn’t scarred Kirkman or Woolen. In fact, they both feel energized and excited about their present opportunities. They do, however, have a couple of tips for CIOs starting new data warehousing programs. “I’d say not to permanently hire the people you need to get a system deployed,” Woolen says. “Sure, it might take a year or two to get it built, but once the warehouse is in place, they don’t have much to do. What you do want are enough people to support it and keep it running once it’s going.”

Kirkman cautions against starting with too granular a level of detail. Get the division heads involved. “If I were starting from the beginning, I’d bring in principals and ask them what kinds of things they need. They are the ones more focused on long-term planning, rather than small details,” he says. “They can also be your advocates to the next level, which in our case is the teachers.”

CIOs should also ensure that the data warehouse isn’t viewed as some sort of frightening monolith by those it is intended to help. “If you start by telling someone you’re going to change the way they do things and their behavior, you’ll face roadblocks and resistance,” Kirkman cautions. “But if you can provide information and show how they can change their own environment, you’ll work together and change the way you operate.” If you aren’t using a data warehouse to affect procedural change, you’re missing the point and missing out.

Class dismissed.