An ODE to Accountability

The Ohio Department of Education turned a legislative mandate to get tough on school assessment and accountability into an opportunity to develop a high-tech learning tool.

by / November 30, 1999 0
One of the education world's newest trends is using technology to help schools function with the sort of efficiencies normally found in the business world. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) packages were among the first tools to move from the business world to the education world. ERP
systems, with their combination of financial, human-resources and procurement functions, are now being used by many educational institutions to streamline complex administrative functions.

Schools are also looking to technology as a means of measuring accountability. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) is one of the pioneers in this area.

In 1998, the Ohio Legislature enacted SB 55 to improve school accountability. Specifically, SB 55 required the ODE to generate "report cards" measuring district and building-level performance in 18 different areas for all 611 school districts in the state. In doing so, the department and state lawmakers hoped to more easily compare and contrast schools with state performance standards and to identify which institutions were excelling and which were falling behind.

The assignment was a difficult one, admitted the department's chief information officer, Rob Luikart. "The report cards required us to collect data from schools and from proficiency-testing companies. But even after all the data was collected, giving it meaning within the confines of a paper report was not easy. You could see the data, but making sense of it and giving it real value was going to require a lot more."

When Luikart began working for the department earlier in 1998, the organization stressed to him its goal of developing a technology plan and data architecture. Luikart, therefore, decided that a technical approach to the report-card dilemma might be the perfect solution.

"Like many Fortune 500 companies, much of our financial and management information was locked up in legacy systems that didn't talk to one another," he said. "We needed to take a more enterprise view of that information, so we undertook a project to build a data warehouse. That was sort of a watershed event for the agency."

The first function of the new data warehouse was to compile the ODE's school-report-card information. Not only would the system efficiently compile all the components from the districts, it would also allow the department to build an interactive version of the report card to be placed on the Internet.

"We wanted to create an e-government environment, meaning we could make this information -- which is important to constituents, the public, legislators, school boards, administrators, parents, teachers and sometimes even kids -- easily accessible to all of them. We also wanted to add value to it," Luikart said.

Putting it in Place

Once the department decided what it wanted, it went looking for strategic partners and best-of-breed practices in warehouse design and implementation. The ODE utilized the expertise of several consulting groups, chose partners and began building the system.

Today, the department's report cards are compiled electronically and available to anyone at its Web site . There, visitors can view a report card from any Ohio school, examine proficiency-test information, attendance and enrollment data, student achievement statistics, teacher qualifications, graduation rates or annual spending per pupil. They can also instruct the system to compile sophisticated reports. "It allows people to look at trend information. It reveals trends on a given district's three-year performance and shows how well it performed in comparison to similar districts and the overall state average," said Luikart. "It provides data that wouldn't be easy to display on the paper report card because it would take up too much space. Things you can't do with paper can be done easily on the Web, using decision-support software and other tools."

According to Luikart, access to student data at the individual school level allows everyone involved in education to make better decisions for Ohio's
students. From the legislative point of view, the department's Web site will improve accountability by showing the state what it's getting -- or not getting -- for its investment. "We'll be able to see what methods of teaching and curriculum are most effective, if programs are having an impact, etc. That's data that wouldn't be easily understood, or even available, prior to the report cards."

Meanwhile, school administrators will use the system to formulate long-term strategies and spot downward trends before they become serious problems. If one school in the state performs excellently, other schools can easily emulate the methods. Parents can use the system to choose the best school for their children. If a school is performing poorly, communities can organize to make changes.

"Few factors have greater impact on student performance than parent and community involvement," said Luikart. "For this reason, providing information to parents and community members in an interactive environment is important. We want them to understand what questions to ask of teachers, administrators and students; to look for areas of strength and weakness and to understand them so they can make informed decisions. Ohio is a local-control state, so there is a great emphasis on local decision-making. Having the information on the Web gives people a basis on which to ask those kinds of questions."

Rob Silverman of MicroStrategy Inc., one of the ODE's partners, said the ODE is one of the few organizations to realize that providing interactive information over the Web can help build a bond with constituents and deliver better service. "This is an organization that's using technology in a way that really adds value to the public," Silverman said. "It is one of the pioneers in doing so."

With their interactive report cards in place, the department is already looking to take the data warehouse to the next level. Plans include making financial and program information available electronically. "It will be interesting to see how providing this kind of information and this kind of tool unfolds and how it might influence activities in the future," said Luikart. "This is just the beginning of a trend in government and education of moving information into a forum where the public can actually use it."

Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News, a Government Technology sister publication. E-mail