For a school district struggling with abysmal ACT and TCAP scores, a system unflatteringly compared to those in wealthier surrounding suburbs and at a disadvantage against Nashville’s vibrant nest of private schools, here’s an area of seeming victory for Metro Nashville Public Schools:
The district’s so-called “data warehouse” –– a term used to describe the newly restructured wealth of information on its 80,000 students and 140 schools, packed together in a computer format easily accessible to teachers and administrators –– is increasingly garnering attention as not only one of the best in Middle Tennessee or the state, but across the entire nation.
Representatives of the British company Tribal Group –– a consulting firm with a worldwide portfolio, hired to assist Metro’s lowest performing schools –– offered overwhelming praise of the warehouse as consultants discussed their educational approach to the Metro Nashville Board of Education at meeting in September.
More recently, The National League of Cities this month dubbed Metro’s warehouse “one of the country’s most comprehensive district-based information systems,” in a decidedly glowing article about the data warehouse. The database, which dates back to 2009, seeks to provide statistical information on the “whole child” to track student progress or point to needed intervention. Hard data is also available for each individual school, and the district as a whole.
It works likes this: Teachers and administrators log onto the database on their desk computers, and access what’s called a “dashboard,” among other tools. Doing so enables them to skim information ranging from attendance, discipline and test records, as well as more detailed data on a student’s after school involvement or physical health, for example. Teachers can correlate various outside factors with student achievement. In time, the idea is to create a system that chronicles the progress of a student from kindergarten through college, and even into the workforce. There are also plans for enhanced data on central office operations and district financing, and teachers themselves, including licensure and certification information, as well as their new state-mandated evaluations.
The key to the hullabaloo boils down to a simple concept: Eradicating silos of information by pooling it together into one source.
Hunters Lane High School Principal Susan Kessler, who said the system gives educators information “at their fingertips” in a format “as easy to use as online banking,” described the data warehouse as something that has “revolutionized” the way principals approach their field.
“It is the best improvement I’ve see in my almost 20 years in this business,” Kessler said. “It’s the most useful change I’ve seen, whether it’s from a classroom teacher perspective or a principal perspective. I’m able to get the information I need of my students in a user-friendly way that’s updated nightly.”
It’s easy to turn the page and brush off Metro’s transformation of student data. It doesn’t initially come off as terribly exciting stuff. But consider the way the district combed through data only a few years ago compared to today.
“Student test data, for example, would be kept in a paper folder, their permanent record,” said Fred Carr, MNPS chief operating officer, recalling the district’s past methods. “So to get any history, you would have to go pull the paper record and put all the sheets of paper on a desk and compare all of it. Now, the computer does that all for us and displays all of it right there. We can look longitudinally: How has a student done in the last couple of years? Before, you just had sheets of paper laid out on a desk.”
Origins of Metro’s data warehouse date back to 2008 and 2009, back when MNPS seemed on the verge of succumbing to a state takeover following years of failure to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks. The takeover never happened, but state officials told the district to “be the prototype for a data warehousing solution,” said Vicki Philpot, who as a 37-year employee of Metro’s Information Technology Department has witnessed the data movement first-hand.
An Atlanta-based technology firm helped jump-start the information overhaul. Using operational funds, the district first launched the warehouse in January 2010. Since then, MNPS has landed $1.3 million in federal Race to the Top funds to help advance the warehouse. A full-time district team, consisting of five employees and a manager, now oversees the program. When the Race to the Top dollars deplete, officials plan to move costs into the district’s overall budget.
The moniker for the data warehouse is MNPS LEADS, an acronym for Longitudinal Educational Analytics and Decision Support System. (When pondering “longitudinal,” think year-by-year; the trends and trajectory of a student, in others words.) The district’s point person for the initiative is Laura Hansen, director of Information Management and Decision Support. Formerly project manager for education initiatives inside Mayor Karl Dean’s office, Hansen came on board in May.
In an hour long tutorial with The City Paper, Hansen went through the ins and outs of the database. That meant covering the various realms of information that feed the warehouse: course grades and TCAP scores; attendance and truancy numbers; records from the Nashville After School Zone Alliance; basic school data; and the district’s special education office.
Hansen also discussed the “roadmap moving forward.” Soon to arrive to the warehouse will be statistics courtesy of the state department of education’s Tennessee Value-Added Assessment Systems, which the state utilizes to measure student academic growth. Metro has also linked up with the National Student Clearinghouse, allowing district officials to follow its former students as they complete –– or exit –– college. (This should be particularly handy in tracking the mayor’s new aim of doubling Nashville’s number of college graduates in five years.)
Beyond all the technical jargon are some relevant applications for teachers and administrators.
Hansen, who is serving her second stint at MNPS after leaving the mayor’s office in the spring, said the district tapped Johns Hopkins University to study Metro’s school data and delineate “thresholds” among three factors –– attendance, discipline and grades –– to pinpoint exactly when students become at risk of dropping out. Accessing the data warehouse in a presentation to The City Paper, Hansen highlighted an anonymous high school, pointing out six unnamed students there have already reached three flags this school year.
“So, it isn’t having to review individual case files anymore,” she said. “It’s actually brought to your attentions: ‘Here are six students that are really in trouble.’ And there’s a list of those students.”
Philpot, of the district’s IT department, suggested the warehouse has fostered a sea change –– one in which analyzing student performance changed from a subjective account to a stat-driven, scientific breakdown.
“Honestly, before we were able to do this,” Philphot said, “decisions were basically anecdotal, or they were done by, as we say, going through the ‘data desert,’ spending hours, days, weeks to pull together information. The research and evaluation department was just overloaded with requests for this type of analyses.”
There’s a big catch, however, to all the excitement echoed by school district officials. Tools like these mean absolutely nothing, Metro school officials acknowledge, if teachers don’t use it. And with 6,400 certified staff –– teachers, principals, librarians, guidance counselors and administrators –– that isn’t an easy task.
“Everything we do is about getting teachers to relate to students and respond to students, so that’s absolutely the issue,” said the district’s Alan Coverstone, who oversees a new cluster composed of 10 historically failing Metro schools. “I’d say this is designed to be most user-friendly at the teacher level.”
With Race to the Top aid, Metro has 12 data coaches who help train teachers on how to access, and make the most of, the data warehouse. There are also data-user professional development groups to allow teachers to explore the database in teams. Schools officials have been tracking teachers’ utilization of the data warehouse. So far this school year –– between Aug. 11 and Oct. 6 –– the district has recorded 941 teachers have signed onto the system. When factoring in central office workers and others, the warehouse has been accessed nearly 73,000 times.
“We’re pretty impressed with that number,” Hansen said.