Bobby is a 5th-grader. He’s a good, middle-of-the-road student: He doesn’t often act out or miss school, nor is he propping his arm up all day because it gets tired from being permanently raised. Bobby’s a quiet kid, and he makes some effort on every assignment. His teacher is more concerned with keeping her top-tier students stimulated and her “problem students” supported.

Smiling tudent at school

Bobby represents about 80% of students in American public schools. And due to teachers’ maximum capacity (as human beings), the Bobbies of the world don’t get special attention unless they miraculously shoot up into the top-tier or, far more likely, start showing signs of being at risk for dropping out of school.

Bobby’s teacher creates student data every day by tracking attendance, grades, and test scores. She also uses multiple mobile apps to keep students (and their parents) engaged. When she has time (!!!), she sifts through these disparate datasets. And when it arguably matters most to the school—i.e., once a year when mandatory testing occurs—she finds out who’s hitting the mark and who’s falling behind by the state’s standards.

What Bobby’s teacher can’t easily ascertain by looking at fragmented student data is why a student like Bobby might suddenly underperform on a test, start missing more school, stop trying as hard on his assignments, or all of the above.  

Now, imagine if Bobby’s teacher could pull up a real-time report every morning with profiles for each of her students—each filled with all of the data from every teacher and counselor.

Futuristic user interface concept. Graphical User Interface(GUI). Head up Display(HUD). Internet of things.

She sees a red flag beside Bobby’s profile (literally). The dots are already connected for her so she can devise an effective action plan, possibly involving the counselor and Bobby’s family. She intervenes when it has the greatest chance of making a difference.   

The most innovative schools and states in the country are already doing this. It’s called data interoperability—i.e., when data from multiple sources and systems speaks the “same language” and flows into tools for educators and administrators in real time. School districts and entire states are developing early-warning systems with data interoperability at the core to prevent students from falling through the cracks. And we’re already seeing the impact interoperability can have on college and career readiness.

The possibilities that data interoperability presents for student data analysis are endless, and it becomes far easier to detect when students like Bobby start falling behind. This greatly improves their chances of staying in school, enjoying school, and being successful beyond school.

To achieve interoperability, a data standard is required to ensure that data from separate source systems and applications is exchanged securely in a way that makes it shareable, combinable, and connected.

Every technologist involved in K-12 education—including yours truly—has bought, built, implemented, and change-managed our way through countless ed-tech tool deployments to address specific priorities, to solve some problem. It takes teachers and system administrators a boatload of time they simply don’t have to manually seek, sort, export, and knit together the information from these siloed datasets.

Schools and districts are allocating funds for student information systems, point solutions, and new classroom technologies—as they should be—but they are only catching a few drops of the potential value from these investments. Simply put, without a data standard and data interoperability, unconnected student data will provide little value to support educators and students.

But with a data standard in place for ed-tech products—i.e., a platform—teachers are freed to do what they’re called to do: deliver the finest education possible. No more wasted weekends trying to make sense of outdated data in multiple spreadsheets, no more disconnected data systems, no more frustration with technology. Personalized learning becomes the new normal.

And the impact of data interoperability extends beyond the classroom in every direction. For school districts, superintendents and school boards can instantly understand how their schools, students, and teachers are performing. At state education agencies, education leaders gather district-level data reports regularly, efficiently, and accurately. And for edtech providers, their products all speak the same language while retaining the unique features that make them valuable.

So far, fully realized data interoperability is far from the reality in most schools in the country. There are signs of momentum, though. 2018 COSN research found that while only 10% of education IT leaders have fully implemented data interoperability, 72% have partially implemented or are in the planning phase.

Data interoperability is possible. Ed-Fi offers a free, open, and usable student data standard and technology tools. A nonprofit organization devoted to making interoperability achievable and scalable, Ed-Fi has no profit motive and is tuned into all of the voices in the edtech space.

So the technology itself is free and open, but a paradigm shift is required here. Collectively, we have to drive the traditionally slow-moving education sector to invest time and resources into becoming data-driven. Technologists, educators, and leaders all have a part to play in moving education forward. I’m optimistic; if healthcare can do it, so can we.

We hope you’ll get engaged by signing up for our email list and commit to becoming a data interoperability advocate—for the benefit of learners first and foremost.


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