CoSN’s annual IT Leadership Survey provides invaluable information and insights into what’s working for IT leaders, and what areas are ready for a change. This year, we partnered with CoSN to craft this survey, expanding the section on data interoperability and adding new questions—including one about IT leaders’ connection to the classroom (or lack thereof).

This year, in particular, the survey and report are helping us understand how education agencies think about data interoperability, how IT Leaders are approaching their work, and where we have an opportunity to share the benefits of interoperability that reach far beyond their departments. This research deepens our understanding of the challenges, needs, and goals of CTOs, CIOs, and other IT Leaders (beyond our circle of interoperability devotees in the Ed-Fi Community). You can download the CoSN report here.

Here are our top takeaways from this year’s survey:

Top Challenges & Priorities for IT Leaders

For the third year in a row, the top challenges facing district-level IT Leaders remain a lack of budget and resources, a lack of professional development, and department silos.

Most IT Leaders consider cybersecurity their top priority, and rightfully so with K-12 security on the top of minds of parents and educators. Data-driven instruction & decision making was ranked third on the list of priorities; this tells us districts of all sizes are acknowledging that a data-driven approach is critical for their teachers, students, and technology infrastructures.

With the majority of districts feeling strained by their budgets and resources, IT Leaders are too busy troubleshooting with vendors and responding to time-sensitive reporting requests to take the plunge and fully implement interoperability. The irony here is that data interoperability will resolve many of the challenges hindering IT departments.

Data interoperability allows for more advanced reporting—clearing up budgeting and resource allocation questions. Connected data makes cybersecurity far more manageable. Inequity becomes easier to detect and rectify when a CTO can determine what is contributing to students’ assessments, attendance, grades, and other learning outcomes. Data-driven instruction and decision making become the norm when IT Leaders can stop grinding in first-responder-mode and work proactively, as data scientists.

Lacking a Connection to the Classroom 

Certainly not least of all, interoperability strengthens the connection between IT personnel and the classroom, something 75% of IT Leaders want. When asked how they envision their technology departments supporting teaching and learning, respondents want to provide support in the following ways:

76% want to be more responsive to educators needs, 73% want to support best of breed technology tools, 49% want to surface real-time data for educators

“Many respondents commented about the lack of time for instructional aspects of their role. ‘Working with students’, ‘being in the classroom,’ ‘classroom visits,’ ‘personal engagement with students and teachers,’ getting ‘a first-hand view’ and ‘more time to be able to connect directly with student learning outcomes,’ were common sentiments expressed.”

This doesn’t surprise us, because 40% of district IT Leaders have an education background. And regardless of background, they’ve chosen school districts over higher-paying private sector careers because of the mission to serve learners and transform education. It’s the students who motivate them to wake up in the morning. This feeling of disconnect from the classroom—and the inability to respond to teachers’ & learners’ technology needs—is preventing a data-driven approach in the classroom and it’s contributing to burnout and turnover for both IT departments and educators.

Data interoperability aids in all of these areas. When teachers can visualize real-time data and a 360-degree view of their students, they can determine which apps and tools are the best fit for their classrooms. And when the required analysis is more complex, IT Leaders can dive deep into the analytics, partner with and guide educators in uncovering insights and making these decisions. Data interoperability creates a powerful feedback loop between students, educators, and IT teams and empowers all three with actionable insights. The result is data-driven instruction and decision making that supports each and every learner.

Partial Interoperability is the Majority, but Full Implementation is on the Rise

District IT Leaders know that data interoperability is the future, and many are well on their way. “Year-over-year data interoperability had the largest increase in implementation of any category, rising to 78% from 70% the prior year.” While only 12% of IT Leaders have fully implemented data interoperability, 67% are in progress. Let’s celebrate that for a second. More than two-thirds of school district IT departments are on the path to interoperability.

Beyond those who are already working to make their systems fully interoperable, an impressive 85% of survey respondents are requiring interoperability when making purchasing decisions, setting themselves up for an interoperable future. “Districts are increasingly including interoperability in RFP requirements to ensure that new technology brought into an existing digital ecosystem will not require costly custom integrations or on-going manual maintenance.” Ed-Fi helps districts communicate this demand to their vendors, creating power in numbers and leveling the playing field for districts of all sizes. This gives vendors the compelling proof they need to become Ed-Fi Certified, reducing cost and risk in the long run on both sides of the equation.

A Mix of Open Standards and Custom Solutions  

79% of surveyed districts have partially or fully implemented interoperability, and most are a combination of open standards and custom solutions:

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There’s a dangerous misconception that a district has to go all or nothing. Meaning, if they use an open data standard like Ed-Fi, they have to use only Ed-Fi tools to meet their interoperability needs—when in reality these options can serve different purposes and most districts are using them in tandem.  

Looking Ahead

The rise of data interoperability is steady, and we’re finding new ways to support district IT departments through this process so they can join the ranks of districts who are fully interoperable and reaping the benefits. As more IT Leaders join the Ed-Fi Community—an active nationwide group of districts, states, vendors, and other partners—we can expedite this paradigm shift for the whole field of education.

The value of interoperability is exponentially greater when your district, your neighboring districts, your state, your vendors, and your partners all coalesce to take a data-driven approach and share what’s working for students. Then we can really call ourselves an education system.