Georgia’s Information Tunnel: Linking District Ingenuity with State Resources to Make Data Matter
Georgia is making strides in improving education in several ways, including supporting effective educators, turning around low-achieving schools, strengthening science and mathematics programming, and using high-quality common standards and assessments. However, all of these efforts require access to high-quality data to support decisionmaking, continuous improvement, and program evaluation.
Today the state of Georgia boasts an innovative and effective education data system that is powerfully transforming how thousands of district leaders, educators, and parents across the state access and use high-quality longitudinal data to support these and numerous other education initiatives, all aimed at improving student achievement.
The Georgia Tunnel
When state education leaders first sought to provide access to the statewide longitudinal data system, they were met with several challenges. Individual school districts had already invested in their own costly data management systems, which were largely incompatible with state-level databases. Worse, many districts were skeptical of the state’s goals for a comprehensive education data system. In 2009, after seven years of failed attempts to implement a system to harness the combined power of Georgia’s state and local education data, state-level vision and leadership were finally paired effectively with local collaboration to produce an original model that makes data useful and accessible for Georgia educators and stakeholders.
The centerpiece of Georgia’s model is a virtual “tunnel” that links data from a single state system directly to district-level student information systems (SIS) and allows district administrators, principals, teachers, and parents to access state education data through their district’s existing program. Local education agency officials can now view and compare state and local performance information on specific schools or programs to identify best practices, while teachers and parents have access to detailed longitudinal data to support children in the classroom and at home.
With the tunnel, Georgia has combined local data with state-level resources and made it easy to use education data in meaningful ways. By not only amassing vast amounts of education data but also making its application practical for multiple stakeholders, Georgia moved from a compliance model of data collection to a service model that promotes effective data use by educators and stakeholders.
Georgia’s Role: Providing Infrastructure and Support
The Georgia Department of Education was uniquely situated to actively support data use and the production of the tunnel with state resources, leadership, and stakeholder engagement. In creating the data system tunnel, the Department of Education involved a users’ group of the Georgia Student Information System (GSIS) in discussions about the state SIS and its needs. Carolyn Oliver, the coordinator of registration & student information at Pauling County Schools, described the model’s iterative development process and outcomes saying, “They listened to us as customers as to what would be important to us and what we needed, so that changed our whole mindset of us being involved in the project. . . . To be able to get that information back in a useful way, we now see the benefit of giving the data to the state to begin with.” After the construction of the system, state Chief Information Officer Bob Swiggum demonstrated the model to individual teachers and members of GSIS to ensure buy-in and ultimately change the culture of data collection and use in the state. Finally, using part of a federal grant, the state provided funding to each SIS vendor working with districts in the state to connect the state system into the local one.
Evidence of Impact: Meaningful Tools for Districts, Schools, Teachers, and Parents
Despite years of uncertainty about the state’s data initiative, the ease and usefulness of the tunnel led to its immediate and widespread adoption in districts across the state. Use of the tunnel is entirely optional for districts; the high implementation numbers speak to the tremendous value the system provides to educators and stakeholders. The tunnel, launched in September 2010, was in use in 75 of the state’s 180 school districts by the end of the calendar year, 160 districts by the end of 2011, and all 180 districts by the end of 2012.
Figure 1: State Gets Kudos for System to Track Students, Nancy Badertscher, 2011)
Teacher support for the system has also been enthusiastic. Now a teacher in Georgia can easily view each of his or her students’ progress in different subjects over time and create personalized learning activities that build on strengths and fill gaps. Pam Williams, a teacher at Appling County High School and the 2011 Georgia Teacher of the Year, said, “The longitudinal data system is like an answered prayer for many of us as teachers because we spent so much time that could be utilized in other ways going and trying to get the information. . . . [Now] we’re able to have time to take that information and build the lessons for meaningful learning, which is what our real purpose is.”
In January 2013 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that use of the tunnel among teachers is high in many areas of the state. While state education officials hope to increase use in Atlanta and other urban areas that currently rely heavily on complex local data systems, the state remains perfectly positioned to continue collaborating with local districts, transforming the data use culture in Georgia and, ultimately, students’ lives.