Building a successful statewide longitudinal data system is not a quick win or low hanging fruit. Rather, it requires establishing a vision, building relationships and shared governance, having top of the line privacy and security policies, and meeting the stakeholders needs. All of that takes years of planning and patience.
The first twenty years of my career was spent working in K-12 education. Sixteen of those years I served as the technology director for the largest school district in North Dakota. The superintendent who took the helm in 2000 had a leadership style that was very student centered and data driven. He asked me to form a team to look at online assessments, a market that was in its infancy. We chose the most experienced vendor and an adaptive testing method that allowed us to measure students’ growth in learning from fall to spring, as well as year-to-year. We were able to see where the curriculum was working and where it was not aligning to state standards. More importantly, we were able to see whether students were performing at, above, or below grade level according to national norms and break down the data according to teacher. As a result of the data, the entire district changed its approach to improving student achievement. It was the most profound positive change I had seen in education in my career.
Upon being appointed CIO for the State of North Dakota in 2006, we began creating a statewide longitudinal data system for education and workforce. Our first step was to meet with each agency who was a consumer or provider of data or both. I made it a point, as State CIO, to be present at the meetings with the agency head and their leadership team. Our meetings served to create a shared vision of a system that would serve the needs of multiple stakeholders – answering questions with data. Agencies included those from workforce, commerce, insurance, and unemployment; departments of K-12 and higher education, career and technical education, private education, and education associations; departments of health and human services, health units, and health care providers; law enforcement including departments of correction and rehabilitation; the governor’s office, legislators, transportation, revenue, and the office of the attorney general. From those initial and ongoing meetings, a roadmap was created that included a phased approach and the funding needed at each phase. The initial concept and funding was approved by Governor Hoeven and the 2009 Legislature. In addition, the State of ND received a $6.7 million federal education grant to build out its statewide longitudinal data system based on the initial roadmap and the commitment from lawmakers and the executive branch.
The first phase of the new statewide longitudinal data system (SLDS) targeted K-12 education. The data was to be pulled from PowerSchool, the state hosted student information system, used by 90 percent of the K-12 districts in the state. By 2011, the SLDS contained data on demographics, grades, attendance, and multiple local, state, and national assessments including ACT and SAT, that school districts could access. Districts were able to get a historical view of the students in their schools as well as those transferring in which had not been possible before. Not surprisingly, the remaining 10 percent then committed to using PowerSchool as they saw the value of having their data in the SLDS.
Concurrently, as the technical team worked on K-12 data, the governance team began to work through the governance structure of the system including data sharing agreements. As one might expect, the governance proved to be the most challenging. Navigating federal regulations, including Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for education data and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for healthcare data, seemed straightforward but it turned out that each agency’s attorneys had different interpretations of the regulations. If those regulations weren’t enough of a problem, it seemed that reluctant agencies would then find something in state law that prevented them from participating. Finally, in frustration, we called a summit of all the agencies’ attorneys hosted by the deputy attorney general. A draft of the data sharing agreement had been shared prior to the meeting and attorneys were asked to verbalize their concerns. By the end of the afternoon, we had an agreement and soon after all agency heads signed off.
The state received a $1 million Federal Workforce Data Quality Initiative grant in 2010 to build out the workforce portion of our SLDS. Workforce data began flowing into the warehouse in 2011. North Dakota is struggling to fill the workforce needs in the state due to high activity in the energy sector. The private sector is looking to the SLDS to provide data for student and employee recruitment efforts which is a new challenge for us.
After clearing the governance hurdle, we still ran into roadblocks obtaining post-secondary data. In 2013, I made the move to become part of the ND University System that is comprised of the eleven public colleges and universities in the state. My role includes being the CIO for the system in addition to being in charge of institutional research. The top item on my agenda was to get relevant data flowing from the shared campuses’ information system to the SLDS. The system began receiving meaningful post-secondary data, such as remediation, retention, and graduation information for several cohort years, in 2013. As a result research analysts have been able to now predict in eighth grade which students are on track for post-secondary success or remediation, as well as other meaningful information. That information is available to the K-12 administrators, teachers, and counselors to share with parents. It will help K-12 administrators to adjust their curriculum and practices but will also help higher education to prepare for incoming students.
Steps to our success include:
Vision – Build it together and share it often.
Relationships – Build and nurture relationships with the agencies and lawmaker, meet one on one, and deliver results.
Timing – Not everyone has to get on the first bus, they’ll probably get on when they realize it is going where they want to go.
Governance – It is a difficult and long process, so don’t leave it until the end.
Privacy & Security – Make sure this is foremost on your mind. It is the most vital and critical piece of your success or failure.