Quality of education in K-12 schools is critical for successful competition in the global economy. To aid in the improvement of their key indicators, many educational administrators and managers are looking to data management for help. A large cache of performance data exists for nearly all students, but using this data comes with challenges.

Business Problem

For years, it has been acknowledged that improvements in the educational system in the U.S. are needed to remain globally competitive. Increased standardized testing and other measurement techniques have helped, but there is still a long way to go.

The educational administrators are often technology-starved when measuring and improving the performance of their educational programs. As one senior educational administrator of a large city stated, "I look around at the way technology is being used by my private sector counterparts and it amazes me. They talk about scorecards and dashboards for managing the performance of their company and production. They have figured out how to measure their supply chain, customer satisfaction and financial performance. Then, I look at the tools I have to measure how well we are educating our youth and I shake my head. If we had even half the insight about our student's performance in these types of systems, we could proactively manage our educational efforts."

Getting to the Why Questions

As a consultant who deals in performance management and metrics every day, this quote is enlightening, if not embarrassing. Many of the techniques used for managing profit and performance of commercial endeavors are easily transported to this problem.

The key performance indicators (KPIs) are well documented in the area of public education performance centering on the end result of the student: number of students graduating, number of students entering college, number of students passing standardized tests, etc. Much of this is already captured for state and national reporting purposes. Basically, this answers the what questions around student performance, but this data is often spread in multiple systems.

Improving performance, whether in the public or private sector, requires understanding the why questions. The answers to the why questions are often locked away at a facility or educator level and are not harnessed to make systemic changes.

For example, the number of students entering college has gone up 15 percent from last year; why? One facility may invest in nonathletic extracurricular activities and see that as an answer. Another facility may see time spent developing a peer group for the educators to seek out best practices as the answer. The overall administrator may see the increase in the budget five years ago as the answer. In reality, they may all be right.

The Answer is in the Data

Many times, the why questions cannot be answered in the same fashion as a commercial endeavor because of a lack of consolidated data and the systems to support the decisions. In a commercial business with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, if revenue was dropping off, usually the early warning indicators are right there in their system. Revenue is quantifiable and a decrease is noticed through technology.

Data management professionals in the K-12 educational space must choose their areas carefully because the data to support the why questions needs to be in a consolidated system, and funds are often limited to build such a system. The data management professional must work closely with the administration to understand what data they will need to assemble to promote the decision-making capabilities and play the role of facilitator in getting to that short list of why questions.

Data Forensics

Once the type of data to answer the why questions is known, then the data management professional can start to architect a system to deliver the information. Similar to the consumer product goods (CPG) company I discussed in my February 2007 column, the data management professional plays the role of realist in what data can be assembled. The big difference here is that the CPG will have large amounts of raw transactional data, whereas the K-12 systems will have more decentralized and/or anecdotal data. The data management professional needs to do some serious data forensics or digging around in the decentralized sources to find out if the why question data is really being captured somewhere. A basic operational data capture system may need to be built before any type of analytic system is built.

Adjust Your Strategy

It is often tempting when reading about the latest commercial success in deploying business intelligence to jump right into it. Stepping back and understanding the difference between the what and why questions may show that effort should be spent in upgrading operational systems and delivering a solid dashboard that concentrates (for now) on the what questions. This will deliver value to the administrators and get a proven success for the data management professional to build on.

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