Education meets big data: implement, improve and expand your SLDS

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In my previous blog post, I discussed the benefits of a Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) and shared a SAS book on the subject: Implement, Improve and Expand Your Statewide Longitudinal Data System by Armistead W Sapp III and Jamie McQuiggan.

Implement, Improve and Expand your Statewide Longitudinal Data System

Today, I'm sharing a conversation I had with one of the book’s authors, Armistead Sapp. In it, we discuss state funding, big data and overcoming challenges with patience and persistence.

What was the initial impetus for writing the book and how has it been received?

Armistead Sapp: We wrote the book to address the questions that states might have with implementing, improving and expanding their SLDSs. When I first starting write this, I envisioned we would be talking to the state education leaders and the folks in charge of the SLDS in each state.

As the federal grant program expanded, we realized there was an abundance of funding but there was also a lack of direction. Even after several rounds of funding, states were still struggling. Some states were doing things well and some not so well.

When I started working with the State of North Carolina, on their SLDS at SAS, I realized that there were questions that every state needed to answer. So, I thought it would be important to write a book to share the best practices we were seeing by working with the states on these projects.

The book has been received very well.  When I was at a Council of Chief State School Officers meeting, I spent over an hour and a half answering questions regarding the book and SLDSs.  Many states have asked to talk with us as well. I feel the book has allowed folks to start having conversations about what is working and what isn’t. They all have limited resources, so being able to share and learn from each other has been very important.

Also, this topic will continue to be well received because states are at very different stages with their SLDS and P-20Ws (includes data from Early Learning through Workforce). As evidence to that, new round of grants are coming in 2015. These will focus on enhancing States' capacity to use SLDS’ to identify problems and drive improvement efforts. Previous grants have to been for designing, developing, and implementing an SLDS.

Why is this important to SAS?

Sapp: This is SAS’ sweet spot. We like to access and join data from disparate sources and do advanced analytics on that data.  This requires accessing and managing data, querying the data, reporting and analyzing it and that is what SAS does really, really well. So, this was the perfect fit for SAS. We have been doing this for years and we have some really good power tools to do it. So, we wanted to make sure that education space has access to the same tried and true tools. Plus we thoughts education could benefit from our years of experience with big data projects.

We were seeing states go with a lot of niche education vendors. While they had the education knowledge they lacked experience with large enterprise big data projects. They quickly learned that these niche vendors could not scale and could no longer be supported.  SAS has been handling big data projects for years so, we wanted to help education with the knowledge we had and give back what we had learned from working with our customers. We wanted to share best practices so that everyone was not recreating the wheel.

What are some of the challenges that are faced in implementing these SLDSs?

Sapp: These are a few of the many challenges and questions that need to be addressed:

  1. Political: Where does the SLDS reside? Who runs it? Who is going to sustain it? Who’s budget to maintain it? What questions is it’s allowed to answer? - are all very highly charged political questions. But, these are conversations and decisions that need to be made and that affect all agencies.
  2. Governance of the data: Who owns the data? Who allows the queries? Who agrees to the queries being made? What are the memorandums of usage? Each one of the state education authorities and other sectors (Community Colleges, Universities, Private Universities sector, K-12) are different in each state and require special consideration.
  3. Data and Design: Where does the data reside? What is the output form of the data? Will it be used for Research or multi-purpose? What is the difference between a query and a report? Query – unique student information for research versus a report that could use summaries and is for public transparency. – These need to be designed with the end in mind.
  4. Implementation and Extensibility: How can the data be joined? What are the processed and protocols for data usage? How easily can new data sources be added and joined? Every state, agency, university, community college, private college, etc., all have different data systems – thus each have their own IT protocol and processes. Even those within the same state can all be different. So, they will have to agree to a common query format and a common way of federating the data in order to join the data together. Plus, with new data reporting requirements, the SLDSs needs to be able to easily add and join in new data sources.

How can they be overcome?

Sapp: Two words: patience and perseverance. These systems take a very long time (years) to design, develop, implement and eventually use.

Strong executive leadership and support is key. They need to able to address – what can the SLDS do and what benefits it will have? – so having the Governor, senior state leadership and legislature behind it goes a long way.

In addition, enabling legislation on what the SLDS can/cannot do and what is to be expected. Requiring by the legislators – yearly reports of how many data queries were processed and how long it took to process each query.  Ensuring governance features so that the information is not misinterpreted. Accredited researcher need to go before an institutional review board so that everyone would need approve the query prior to conducting the research. This provides an extra check point for privacy.

Can you give us some examples of how the information in these SLDS are being used?

Sapp: They are being used in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:

Florida is using their SLDS to improve programs offered in Community Colleges and higher education institutions.

Many states are looking into early childhood longitudinal data to better understand and improve student learning and success. Also understanding if early childhood programs actually work.

Connecticut has been working diligently to complete their data warehouse. When complete, it will provide them with a baseline of education performance in the state,  a 360 degree view of student over time and also predictors of student performance in the future.

Overall, states are trying to make data available to researchers to evaluate programs. So, that there is more timely information and analysis. If a program isn’t working then they can pull that program immediately and not keep funding it. Better to know quickly given accurate information than wait till the program in done to evaluate. This would help prevent years of funding lost on an ineffective program.

What are your thoughts around the new round of grants for 2015 that will focus on enhancing States' capacity to use SLDS’ to identify problems and drive improvement efforts?

Sapp: This next round of funding will encourage people to show through getting funds how they would use the information in the SLDS. Some examples would be better research and understanding of early childhood, remediation in Community College, college/career readiness, financial equity, return on investment, instructional support, educator effectiveness and teacher prep programs, etc.

Can you explain how the upcoming DOE regulations and HEA reauthorization will effect SLDSs going forward?

Sapp: These will add additional requirements to SLDSs. The reporting that will be required is going to run in parallel with the data already being collected in the SLDS. It might have been collected but just needs to be integrated into the SLDS.  One example is tying teacher preparation to successful student outcomes. This information will need to be tracked or continued to be tracked year after year. Also, tracking graduation and attrition rates, etc. then incorporating that information into the SLDS for these new reporting requirements.

What are another areas that you see forthcoming that SLDSs could help?

Sapp: There are a so many areas that I mentioned already above but I will name a few more…Workforce in Community Colleges – understanding if financing certain programs works effectively? Are the students using those programs staying within the state or leaving? Funding for Community college given their open door admissions policy and the need to performance based funding. Another one that has been in the news is - Universal Pre-k - giving every 4-year-old in America access to high-quality preschool over the next decade.

For more information about SLDSs check out and excerpt of Chapter 1 of the book, Implement, Improve and Expand Your Statewide Longitudinal Data System to learn more about what it takes to implement (or improve) a successful SLDS.

Stay tuned for more upcoming posts regarding SLDSs.

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Georgia Mariani

Principal Product Marketing Manager

Georgia Mariani is the Principal Product Marketing Manager for the Education Industry.

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