Technology has become an integral part of supporting the district, administration, and the learning ecosystem that leads to student success. Historically, technology has played more of a support role, however, the recent pandemic exposed the reality that districts need to move technology from a support function to a strategic partner that drives teaching, learning, and, more importantly, the operations (Finance and HR) to support the education ecosystem.
As districts consider this shift, they must understand the importance of business and data systems and how data must be leveraged to provide key metrics for the many stakeholders involved in our K-12 districts. Beyond fulfilling the reporting and compliance duties, these data systems are a resource for administrators, teachers, and policymakers across the states to improve operations, educational services, and student outcomes.
Good data can help answer tough questions like:
- Are we managing funding effectively, efficiently, and equitably?
- What is the impact of our processes, workflows, and funding on student outcomes?
- Are we getting the best return on our investments?
- Are all teachers credentialed and highly qualified for their area?
Before districts use their data to answer these and many other questions, it must be collected, cleaned up, and formatted into logical outputs to tell the story. What drives this data is an entire web of business and student systems — sometimes interconnected, sometimes siloed — working to provide insight on our districts. Without the systems, there is no data; and states and districts cannot make effective decisions without the data.
In a recent Forrest report (2019), 95 percent of organizations see long-term value in modernization; however, only 27 percent have invested. In addition, 47 percent of organizations who invested cited improved data reliability and better systems performance and workflow. There is a need for K-12 to modernize their data systems, and districts have the opportunity with the influx of ESSER funding to make such changes now. So, what is the path forward?
Think about how much time and money your district spends to operate normally, let alone optimize your time and funding. With a modernized, interoperable solution, costs can be drastically reduced, and students and teachers more effectively supported.
At PowerSchool, we see modernization as a continuum, a 4-step process in which districts can mature to reach an optimized data system.
The first phase of modernization is moving from manual paper-based processes to automation/digital. A fitting example is moving simple processes such as payroll, purchasing, budget management, etc. to online. While some schools still struggle with the time, effort, and frustration involved with paper-based business processes, forward-thinking schools have improved efficiencies with online and automated solutions. These digital solutions automated day-to-day processes like payroll while ensuring accurate financial and security controls are in place.
Kevin Harrison, Database Manager at Waynesboro Public Schools, says of his district’s switch to an online enrollment system, “Now, forms are filled out online prior to students walking into the school to submit their proof of residence and birth certificate.”
This need was heightened during the recent pandemic and the shift to remote operations.
Workflow & Process Improvement
After districts have made processes and tasks digital and automated them, they should ask the question - are their workflow issues that need to be addressed? Today's districts can't afford to fail in terms of efficiency. While time is money in the business world, in education, time equates to something even more valuable: student learning. Students receive an inferior education when school districts waste time and resources on outdated processes, methodologies, and inefficient disparate systems.
Conversely, for schools and districts running modern systems, workflow increasingly allows operations to work smoothly. It puts more resources back into the classrooms as manual and redundant tasks are reduced. With streamlined technology systems like student information systems, learning management systems, Finance and HR systems, schools can get more done more quickly and use that saved time more wisely on student instruction.
Like in any organization, there are countless ways for schools and districts to boost efficiency by implementing technology that streamlines workflows. If staff is required to track purchases and expenses in a spreadsheet within your finance system, congratulations: You are at least one step above a file folder full of paper documents that employees dropped on an admin's desk. Are your HR systems connected to your finance systems and student information systems? These systems should be connected to allow better process workflow between recruitment, hiring, onboarding, payroll/finance, and even substitute management. Visibility across all of these systems allows for better workflow and management.
According to the Forrest Report (2019), 39 percent of respondents reported improved application performance and stated that modernizing their systems led to better workflow.
Disparate IT environments eat up your IT resources. They make implementation, maintenance, and training difficult and costly. However, with an ed-tech ecosystem built on interoperability, significantly less IT staff time will be required to deploy, maintain, and manage your solutions.
Think about how much time and money your district spends to keep your finance, HR, and student information system solutions up and running. With an interoperable solution, those costs can be drastically reduced – and redirected toward student needs. If you want to keep the money closer to learning in the classroom, an interoperable solution is for you.
A successful district relies on accurate data. But what good is accurate data if it is inaccessible? Interoperable solutions can make it possible to access multiple types of data much faster. With single sign-on, there is only one password between you and your data while, while providing more security. Better yet, bring your data with you in a mobile app that is accessible from anywhere. Since interoperable solutions share data among themselves, they give your district and community instant access to real-time data across multiple platforms. More information means more collaboration.
Interoperable solutions lead to increased engagement for everyone involved in the educational journey.
Data can provide many insights, but it will not do all the work on its own. It is vital to get intuitive, actionable insights into the hands of teachers, administrators, and stakeholders to see how the district is performing at all levels, from financial health to the classroom. That is why it is essential for your data systems to be interoperable and for your district to have the ability to analyze data from multiple platforms to identify trends, obtain real-time feedback, and course-correct as needed.
But even as schools have moved into the digital age, interoperability and a focus on understanding the data to make data-driven decisions still isn't the norm. While administrators have access to more data than ever before, they are often overwhelmed by the volume and cannot use it strategically. Systems' ability to create dashboards can give district leadership the ability to analyze large amounts of disparate data in a simple, visual way. When systems allow districts to see across multiple data sets, it allows for the unification of finance, asset, purchasing, human resources, and instructional data. The result is effective and informed decision-making.
As districts begin leveraging ESSER funds to modernize their data systems, they should start thoroughly evaluating operations to determine the best path forward on the continuum. The evaluation process should include assessing the following considerations:
Audit applications and software to determine their business value, criticality, and where there are opportunities to modernize. Assess workloads holistically in the context of the go-forward business direction.
- ArchitectureReview infrastructure elements, performance, and ROI to assess where newer technologies can deliver better outcomes.
Evaluate spending to find budget burdens and find ways to optimize resources to support current operations and prepare for what is next.
Weigh the possible disruption to the business and any associated impacts to business processes and organizational culture against the desired outcomes of your modernization project. Also, consider the risk of keeping the legacy system as-is, including maintenance for out-of-support systems or those with limited resource support staff.
Determine which new skill sets, training, and processes need to be factored into modernization costs and timelines.
Plan ways to protect systems before, during, and after modernization to avoid data loss, outages, and exposure. In the security plan, organizations should confirm adherence to governmental and industry compliance regulations.
Making a case for modernizing your operational systems boils down to improving workflow and processes with:
- Superior budgeting, procurement, and financial reporting capabilities.
- Improved recruiting tools, allowing schools to drive recruiting needs.
- Increased employee self-service for benefits, expenses, travel planning, and professional development.
- Improved access to data to make better-informed decisions
The goal is for a district to feel confident in its operational readiness and leverage data/systems to make effective decisions.