New education initiative to grade schools’ data

From periodic student assessments, to hourly attendance, K-12 schools generate a tremendous amount of raw data, yet many schools rarely use that data to its fullest potential, Tyler Technologies’ Mark Rigsby said in an interview with CivSource last week.

Last month, the Obama administration announced a $4.3 billion education reform initiative called Race to the Top. Grants will be awarded to those states that use specific reforms to close historic achievement gaps and get more high school graduates into college. Among the initiative’s more granular requirements, states must create a comprehensive data system that can track student progress from pre-school to grad school, and all points in-between.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education released a document (.doc) describing how schools could use Recovery Act funds to drive school reform and improvement through technology. “At the heart of improving schools and school districts are systems to gather and analyze data and provide feedback to educators, students, families, and the community in order to improve student and teacher performance continuously,” the document says, underscoring the importance of utilizing available technology.

School districts have, “data running out their ears,” says Mark Rigsby, President of Tyler Pulse, a division of Dallas-based Tyler Technologies. From periodic student assessments, to hourly attendance, K-12 schools generate a tremendous amount of raw data, yet many schools rarely use that data to its fullest potential, Mr. Rigsby said in an interview with CivSource last week. Unfortunately, many school districts lack the kind of technology and processes that could easily transform and re-purpose that data to give teachers and administrators a complete view of their students’ performance.

Earlier this year, Tyler Technologies acquired PulseMark which developed data warehouse technology intended to help education and government institutions aggregate raw data to aid in information-based decision making. Now, under the Tyler Pulse or District Pulse moniker, Mr. Rigsby and his team are helping school districts manage student assessments, look at how they learn, and more importantly, look at how assessments differ by classroom, teacher, gender, and ethnicity to find trends and make informed decisions.

“When we built out the solution, we knew there were uses for cities, counties and school districts,” Rigsby said, “What we found was that cities and counties had problems managing their data, but school districts were terminal – the need was so deep in schools that we focused solely on that.”

Tyler Pulse is designed to take data from all kinds of sources, including assessment data, student data, financial data and others and produce reports that give administrators a single-view of their districts. Instead of spending time collecting data, administrators can translate it into meaningful information, and then redistribute that information to users and other application systems, Rigsby explained.

tyler pulse

According to a recent survey by the Data Quality Campaign, a national group that works to improve the availability and use of high-quality education data to improve student achievement, states have made progress towards improving their longitudinal data systems in the last five years. Eleven states have met all “10 essential elements” as outlined by DQC and all 50 states have implemented at least five elements. But much work remains, including the ability track student-level course completion and transcript information, the ability to collect college readiness test scores and the capacity match teachers to students as they matriculate through the school system.

The benefits of using Tyler Pulse, Mr. Rigsby maintained, was the solution’s scalability and its price.

“The smallest district we’re in is 800 [students]. But one of our most recent projects was with the City of St. Louis schools – a much bigger, urban school district. And we’re cheap enough that we usually fit into discretionary funds. We almost never have to wait to the next budget year before we implement.”

According to Mr. Rigsby, the Pulse solution is approaching 50 school districts in Missouri, but the results coming from the City of St. Louis schools have been the most dramatic. St. Louis was the typical big district, with data everywhere – but they couldn’t get at it, or use their data for multiple purposes, Rigsby said. The schools were failing, the school board was dissolved and a state-appointed board was put in its place, with a new superintendent put in charge to change everything.

“In the ninety days we’ve been live, we’ve changed everything – they’re seeing information and watching assessments, looking at curriculum from a data-driven viewpoint,” he said. “It has already irrevocably changed how they do business in the district.”

Other school districts around the country will be looking to do the same in order to be competitive for the Race to the Top grants. California hopes to score $700 million next April, when awards are announced and Michigan thinks it may be able to receive $500 million. But the program has an extremely quick turn around, in relative terms.

“The time to pull the trigger is weeks. And most people working in that space are used to work in years. The program is forcing state governments to turn on a dime,” Rigsby said. Still, Race to the Top will help promote data warehousing and data management in education, he said, which will lead to better outcomes.

“The program really is making lot of impact in that area.”