State and districts confront a data dilemma

Andrew Grover smiles before he talks about how the state’s exhaustive and monthly data reporting requirements have affected the Melba School District.

“It’s been hit and miss,” the district’s superintendent says. “It’s a lot of work for a small district to put all of that information together.”

In Melba, five people help gather the data, but one person oversees the monthly reporting, to the near exclusion of doing anything else. This isn’t a unique plight in Idaho’s smaller school districts. But as cumbersome as the data collection is at the district level, it is equally critical at the state level. The findings tie into nearly every big challenge and key initiative on the state’s to-do list: from properly allocating state and federal dollars to gauging school safety to measuring student growth.

It’s a big job — and as Grover’s carefully chosen words suggest, it has been a big source of tension between the state Education Department and districts and charter schools.

This month, the Education Department is traveling across the state to offer training, along with plenty of encouragement and a few apologetic words. On Wednesday, a day-long training session in Boise drew 207 school administrators and employees — including five from Grover’s Melba district.

The Education Department calls the training sessions “boot camp.” And they are, indeed, a test of administrative endurance. If a series of 10 breakout sessions on reporting requirements and “data stewardship” sounds like dry stuff, well, there’s a reason for that.

But the all-day training, starting at 7:30 a.m. and running past 5 p.m., reflects the sheer volume of the information the state collects from the districts.

  • Demographic information, for every student and employee.
  • Attendance for students and staff.
  • Student course enrollment and test scores.
  • Disciplinary actions and incidents of crime or violence.
  • Information on special education students and gifted and talented programs.
  • District calendars.

The difference, now, is that the Idaho System for Educational Excellence requires the districts to submit one large data report monthly. This has streamlined the process at the state level, and in a big way; where state officials once fielded 184 reports per year, per district, they now receive a dozen larger documents.

But this complicated the work at the district level — a point the state Education Department readily concedes. Any number of district employees may be tasked with gathering bits and pieces of the data — not just information technology professionals but teachers, business managers and secretaries. However, it falls to one or two employees to submit all the data to the state.

And that creates a quandary for staffers like Devan Delashmutt, IT administrator in the Kuna School District. Delashmutt and a co-worker assumed all the IT reporting requirements for the Kuna district — but they’re still at the mercy of getting reliable front-end information from the field. “There is stuff going on in the schools that we can’t possibly know about.”

That’s why “data stewardship” was a recurring theme Wednesday  — and why this boot camp had a healthy dose of a pep talk to it. State officials wanted to impart a message on district leaders: Teach staffs to be diligent about collecting good information, and vigilant about protecting data that could compromise students’ privacy.

However, this is still, at its heart, an IT job, with the state spending money to match. In 2010 and 2011, the state hired four regional coordinators to help districts fill out their ISEE reports. In 2013, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna sought, and received, a $2.5 million budget line item for district IT help in 2013-14. (The districts received an identical $2.5 million in 2012-13.) At the state’s minimum salary of $31,000, this $2.5 million is enough to cover 80 teachers’ salaries for a year.

Ultimately, the state and the districts share the same goal: to fine-tune this reporting task into something more seamless — with district staff trained to file automated data reports without extensive in-house review. But the state’s districts and charter schools aren’t there yet; instead, they are somewhere on the learning curve.

Meanwhile, it’s been anything but a smooth trip. In 2007, when Luna took office, Idaho was one of just three states without a longitudinal data system. In 2008, Idaho was the only state without a longitudinal system — and was getting a “tremendous amount” of pressure from the federal Department of Education, said Joyce Popp, the chief information officer for the state Education Department. By 2009, when Idaho agreed to accept federal economic stimulus dollars for education, the state agreed to speed up its setup of the ISEE system by a year; districts agreed to the tradeoff, but also wound up taking on the added work.

And on Wednesday, speaking to a group of school administrators, Popp apologized. She said she moved headlong into a data system without getting to know the state’s education stakeholders. “You should have been involved in that change.”

Grover was there to hear the apology, but he also came to the state’s defense.

“I think they’ve changed their tune there, (but) they’ve worked well with us.”

ISEE boot camps

Here’s the Education Department’s schedule for training around the state. Registration is closed for Friday’s session, but remains open for other sessions.

Friday: Shilo Inn Conference Center, Idaho Falls.

May 13: University Inn, Moscow.

May 14: Templins Red Lion, Post Falls.

May 17: Burley Inn and Convention Center, Burley.

May 21: Red Lion, Pocatello.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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