Emily Bell, CIO for Fulton County (Ga.) Schools, says visualizing year-over-year data allows school leaders to track progress and understand the big picture.

Jul 17 2023
Data Analytics

Here’s How Modern Data Management Platforms Help K-12 Schools Get Work Done

Districts are using technology to track student attainment, manage ed tech investments and automate digital workflows.

In K–12 school districts, there’s ample information available to support decision-making around key operational and educational concerns — if only schools could make use of it.

“School systems are swimming in valuable data that potentially could be used to support students,” says Susan Bearden, former director of digital programs for InnovateEDU, a nonprofit educational organization that is home to the data advocacy group Project Unicorn.

Too often, those who need the data can’t get to it to drive mission outcomes. “In K–12 education, data is often siloed in proprietary systems — student information systems, grade books, attendance assessments or learning management systems — that don't talk to one another,” Bearden says.

Bringing data together from all these systems “often involves exporting data into spreadsheets and manually manipulating it,” she says. “It’s time-consuming and inefficient.”

However, modernized data management and analytics platforms, such as those from Microsoft, Lightspeed Systems and BrightBytes, can help districts bring clarity to data.

Using these tools, school districts across the country are tapping in to data to track student attainment, manage ed tech investments and address various aspects of their business operations.

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Better Understanding of Data Drives Educational Outcomes

For K–12 districts, the ability to better manage and visualize data can play a key role in supporting educational outcomes.

At Fulton County Schools, Georgia’s fourth-largest school district, CIO Emily Bell uses Power BI to compare student achievements with state results. “Of course, our objective is to exceed state and national averages in all areas,” she says. “Our visualizations allow a quick determination of which areas require more academic emphasis and work.”

Watch the full episode to hear more from Emily Bell about data analytics.

At Mashpee Public Schools in Massachusetts, Instructional Technology Director Suzy Brooks mines district data with Lightspeed Digital Insight. With ready visibility into student performance metrics, “we can jump in at any point to evaluate what needs improvement,” she says.

After a statewide assessment, for example, “we may find there is a general weakness in one or more areas,” Brooks says.

RELATED: How data analytics can show ed tech’s impact.

Visibility into the data allows the district to align its ed tech tools in support of stronger academic outcomes. “We will look at the available tools we have for strengthening those skills, how the tools are being implemented and how familiar teachers are with using them in their teaching,” she says.

This learning-focused use of data is a team effort for Brooks.

“There are no more silos for curriculum, programming, professional development, assessment or student outcomes,” she says. Lightspeed’s ability to give everyone access to the metrics in a ready-to-use format “helps us to make more informed decisions based on real-time data.”

That schools are seeing benefits from these tools should come as no surprise. School leaders have been crying out for data to better support their students, according to a 2022 national poll from the Data Quality Campaign. Poll results found 93 percent of superintendents started to collect new data during the pandemic.

Similarly, respondents to Project Unicorn’s 2022 State of the Sector report, which surveyed more than 185 local and regional education agencies, say data has the biggest impact on the educational environment, procurement, leadership and vision.


The percentage of school superintendents who say better access to information helps them be more confident in their decision-making

Source: dataqualitycampaign.org, “New National Polling Highlights That Students and Superintendents Alike Want Access to Data,” Sept. 20, 2022

Schools Use Data Visualization to Address Workflows

Fulton County Schools uses Power BI as part of its Microsoft A5 license. “We have leveraged that to create all of our data visualizations,” Bell says. “The data itself is sent to our on-premises data warehouse, and we clean, validate and structure it so our data scientists can then pull it and visualize it using Power BI.”

While Bell uses visualization tools to track learning and academic progress for the district’s 89,450 students, she also uses Power BI to support business operations within the district.

“We do a good job of tracking academic progress, but there are so many other areas of our business that are important,” she says. “The software helps us with things like facilities and IT devices, and work orders related to both.”

The data platform supports greater transparency in financial reporting and helps measure stakeholder perceptions. Bell says the platform gives them “feedback on how well we are doing in many areas of service to our stakeholders.”

Power BI also helps Bell better manage service workflows across Fulton’s operational areas. The platform recently proved valuable in visualizing unresolved work orders and providing direction.

“We had some plumbing issues that were unresolved for days because of a staffing shortage,” she recalls. “Data visualization highlights ongoing problems like those so we can get help and resolve them quicker.”

Suzy Brooks
There are no more silos for curriculum, programming, professional development, assessment or student outcomes.”

Suzy Brooks Instructional Technology Director, Mashpee Public Schools

Data Analytics Tools Help Schools Make Strategic Investments

At Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Instructional Technology Director Sharon Shewbridge relies on Lightspeed Systems analytics to make sense of a chaotic ed tech landscape.

Shewbridge joined the Virginia district in January 2020, when the technology situation was a bit like the Wild West. “We didn’t have a lot of restrictions on schools purchasing things,” she recalls.

With an analytics tool in hand, she started asking questions about the ed tech tools available in the 65,550-student district. “Use is the No. 1 component. We wanted to know if students and teachers were using the tool,” she says. “We then looked at return on investment. We would analyze how much a tool cost and how much we were using it to determine if it was worth the money.”

This approach helped drive strategic investing at VBCPS. With data showing actual use, “we had an argument for why we selected or didn't select certain applications in the following years, or why we increased the number of site licenses for one application versus something else,” she explains.

At Mashpee Public Schools, Brooks has taken a similar route, leveraging Lightspeed to pare back an overabundance of ed tech tools and licenses.

With just 1,500 students, Mashpee had between 75 and 100 ed tech tools in use. Without a data management solution, “there was no way to track these things in an efficient way,” she says.

Once they were able to visualize and analyze the data, “we started to do an inventory and realized that maybe we had the same tool at two different schools, or we were paying for something that we weren't using, or we didn't know who was in charge of it,” she shares. “Now, one person manages all of the subscriptions, knows what the costs are, who uses them and how they’re implemented, and I monitor the amount of use we’re getting.”

DISCOVER: How analyzing ROI helps IT leaders make decisions.

Data Visualization Is Essential to Helping School Leaders

Before implementing a data management platform, Bell did her reporting on an Excel spreadsheet, complete with seven pages and 300 rows of point-in-time data.

“Now, we’re providing these colorful visualizations. There are bar charts, pie charts, line graphs, and we have year-over-year data so that we can track progress,” she says. “These make it much easier for the end user to understand the big picture.”

Such capabilities make data not only more available but also more actionable in support of a district’s mission and goals.

Shewbridge agrees. “When you bring data to the table, the conversation has more meaning and more purpose than if you just come with an opinion,” she says. “When you come with the data, you have factual information, and work gets done.”

Photography by Matt Odom

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