Does Your District Have a Solid Data Foundation?

By Tom 1

For over two years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel from coast to coast speaking and working alongside thousands of school leaders and hundreds of school district teams. Throughout the nation, I couldn’t be more impressed with the amazing educators who are working diligently for kids – every day.

I’ve been able to see firsthand how school leaders are implementing exciting innovations that are accelerating high quality teaching and learning—things such as Open Education Resources (OER), repurposing their spaces, completely overhauling how they assess a child’s growth by shifting to a competency-based learning model, among other things.

It’s been incredibly motivating to see the most exciting schools and districts are venturing away from the the industrial model approaches that many of us experienced as kids — and for good reason. There’s quite a bit of evidence on topics such as brain-based learning that offer new insights into replacing traditional instruction and grading with proficiency-based learning and reporting. This evidence has made it apparent the staid methods are not only less effective, but actually prevent students, and ultimately schools as a whole, from achieving maximum success with today’s modern learners.

With such transformation, many school leaders are looking to experts in the field for their philosophies, experience, and frameworks. Simultaneously, instructional technology is rapidly evolving and supporting change, when used with a laser focus. These changes have forced districts to reevaluate the regular functionality of a school or district’s “tech stack”, from the ground up: core data, instruction, and content.

But herein lies the problem. From what I’ve witnessed, many schools leaders are not evaluating their data management at more than a surface level. With a lack of training, it’s quite possible that some aren’t even sure how. Do these school leaders have sufficient visibility into what’s happening in each classroom and program district-wide? Can they effectively choose new practices to implement from that visibility? If not, how are such decisions being made?

The core data infrastructure starts with the “foundation” in the school or district’s student information system (SIS). As districts move to a more personalized approach for students, leaders will need access to yet another level deeper – the learning management systems (LMS). Of course there are dozens of other digital tools further up the stack used in lessons, intervention programs, to meet medical needs, and even counseling. When that information doesn’t make it’s way to the foundation of the system, the data available for leaders is limited.

Reflecting on these issues reminds me of something from every leader’s Education 101 course in college – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Anyone who has spent time in classrooms has had students underperform because they weren’t getting something as basic as regular meals, which many take for granted. When schools are able to support their basic needs through breakfast programs, etc., the student’s ability to succeed in the classroom is directly impacted. When students don’t have certain needs being met (such as food, water, and sleep) at the foundational level, it limits the relevance of pursuing other needs further up the pyramid.

There is a similar dynamic in the technological tools leaders choose for their district. At the top of the stack, digital resources, including interactive web tools, apps, etc., can be utilized to make learning personal (and fun!) for students. When used well, these tools can empower higher order, authentic learning experiences for all developmental stages. However, if leaders have insufficient access and visibility into their data, they become limited at the base of the hierarchy. These limitations will yield less effective efforts further up. With data scattered about, and various systems controlling different data points, making the needed progress becomes difficult. Ultimately, it’s the learner that loses out on what’s feasible. 

One of the players disrupting the system at the base of the pyramid that has caught my attention is Alma. This platform combines the needed student information and learning management systems while helping districts meet these aforementioned basic – but crucial – data management needs. Their mantra is to empower all users, regardless of level of access, to build with confidence on top of a stable and expansive foundation: a best-in-class SIS. Alma’s approach makes it easy for superintendents and instructional technology staff to shed the constraints of their previous platform and accommodate the sorts of modern pedagogical practices needed to serve today’s modern learners well. Having lived with a sub-par SIS as a teacher, principal, and technology directors for fourteen years, I understand firsthand the frustrations that ensue from many of today’s systems.

As I’ve watched the platform evolve, I personally believe that Alma is, thus far, the best tool in this space and that it transcends the competition at all levels. From their priority of customer service, to a great tool set for classroom teachers, to the ease of district-wide reporting (which use to drive me nuts as a tech director), I foresee this resource being adopted in the coming years by many districts, especially those who are tired of the excuses, like I was, from their current providers.

Every district needs a solid foundation and system that meets their needs today, tomorrow, and for years to come. Who is helping you best meet the needs of your kids? With that, Alma is definitely worth a look.

All for the kids we serve,

Note: Although this post mentions a particular product, I was not compensated for the post. This post comes after years of frustration with traditional systems that didn’t meet the needs of the district where I was a school leader and searching for a better way.
– Tom

Antony Rappai

Hey solid post, we are kind off going through this same conundrum.We are facing data disparity and trying to merge into a single solution that has SIS and LMS combined, but I am thinking one more step ahead and trying to figure out why is not there a provider that can offer LMS, SIS, and ERP ( one that has HR, Finance, A/P, A/R modules), that would make data more streamlined.We use Powerschool for SIS and Moodle for LMS, but we are looking at various options for our LMS and Powerschool learning looks pretty good plus it works well with PowerSchool SIS

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