See the Big Picture: Holistic Student Support with Data Interoperability in K-12 Schools

In the wake of ongoing educational challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, educators, families and communities are asking for a more holistic approach to meeting student needs.

According to the June 2022 Learning Heroes survey Hidden in Plain Sight, more than 89 percent of parents believe that it is essential for families and teachers to work together to help overcome the pandemic’s impact on learning. Still, only 58 percent of teachers believe that most or all of their parents clearly understand how their child is doing academically. How do we overcome this gap? One answer lies in better communication between parents, students and schools through data interoperability.

Educators, families and communities are asking for a more holistic approach to meeting student needs.

Data interoperability is the seamless, secure and controlled exchange of data between applications. It is one of the most prominent technological aspects of our everyday lives, but because it works behind the scenes, we don’t typically see it in action. Interoperability is why your Bluetooth earbuds connect to myriad devices and your bank account can be accessed at most ATMs. Think of interoperability as the plumbing and access to information and ease of use as the hot shower that we can enjoy by simply turning on the tap.

Schools are awash in valuable data about students, creating the potential for educators to access a profile of the “whole child.” However, a meaningful and useful picture is only possible if school systems can support educators to bring that data together securely. In most places, student data exists in silos, separated by the multiple edtech platforms within the schools’ data ecosystems. Understanding the full portrait of a student—their academics, extracurriculars and social and emotional well-being—and preparing them for graduation and the workforce requires making those data systems talk to one another securely. In other words, unlocking the potential of data to help all students learn and thrive requires interoperability.

Interoperable data systems can minimize the number of platforms needed to view student data. As interoperability improves, educators and families can view information like student grades, attendance records, social and emotional well-being, student interest areas and more, all in a single dashboard. Given the various systems that collect and host data in today’s schools, such a “whole picture” of a student is only possible with interoperability.

Despite these benefits, school technology leaders across the country struggle to implement data interoperability in their schools. In the latest State of EdTech Leadership Report from the Consortium for School Network (CoSN), interoperability was identified as one of the largest needs in school districts—second only to cybersecurity. To understand implementation challenges, Project Unicorn—a coalition of 18 organizations collaborating to support and promote the use of data interoperability in education—launched the annual School System Data Survey (SSDS) in the spring of 2021. The SSDS gathers information about school system capabilities and infrastructure for leveraging education data in six domains: governance, leadership and vision, technology and infrastructure landscape, implementation fidelity, procurement and impact on educational environment. Survey results are analyzed in the companion State of the Sector Report, released in the fall.

Now in its second year, the 2022 State of the Sector report, to be released in late October, provides valuable insights into the state of data interoperability in education. Highlights of the upcoming report include:

  • For the second year in a row, school systems that signed the Project Unicorn Pledge and were part of the Project Unicorn community scored higher across ALL survey domains compared to those that had not. This fact tells us that a concerted approach to building school system awareness, capacity and resources is essential to advance data interoperability in the sector.
  • Governance was identified as the domain with the most significant challenges, followed by implementation fidelity and technology and infrastructure.
  • School systems that reported having data teams scored significantly higher across all domains. Data teams were defined as “individuals who analyze, explore and interpret data to support program improvement.” Developing the human capacity to manage and interpret data is a significant need. For example, imagine the potential of converting existing information technology specialists into instructional technology specialists—dedicated professionals certified to coach teachers on integrating technology in their classrooms—and embedding them in every school. The strategy recently championed by the Center for an Urban Future and Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund has the potential to dramatically shift how we use technology to enable and support learning by developing the human capacity already present in some districts.
  • Many school system leaders are still not familiar with interoperability standards or how they might be used to benefit students. Awareness-building and technical support around data interoperability are still broadly needed across the field.

Every school, family and educator across the country deserves a comprehensive picture of student needs, achievements and academic progress. To provide this, we must seamlessly and securely bring together previously siloed data to better support students in the classroom and beyond. We need significant investments at the state, federal and local levels to make education data interoperability as ubiquitous as Bluetooth headsets.

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