A Learning Enterprise

U.S. public schools have much to teach about enterprise software.

by Fred Sandsmark, August 2010

At a glance, K-12 public schools—primary educational institutions that serve students from 5 to 18 years old—don’t have much in common with for-profit businesses. But take a closer look: School districts face competition (from private and charter schools). They need productive and accountable employees. They must comply with complex regulations. They have to be financially transparent. And many operate on large scales, delivering products and services to hundreds or thousands of customers—that is, students—in a geographically distributed operation.

And like private businesses, K-12 public school districts need to stay agile in turbulent financial times. According to Karen Billings, vice president of the Education Division of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) and a former teacher, school districts are bearing the brunt of the real estate market downturn as a decline in property tax receipts cripples state and local budgets. “This school year and next are going to be more difficult than districts have seen in a long time,” predicts Billings. “It’s going to take quite a while for them to bounce back.”

But in the face of financial distress, some school districts are using approaches more often associated with the private sector: employing enterprise applications to increase operational efficiency, track and improve customer outcomes, and boost employee effectiveness. And while much of educational IT is focused, rightfully, on the classroom, Billings says that schools’ back-office IT systems will play important roles in coping with the budget crunch. “Managing the enterprise is a key initiative, in terms of where technology is helping schools,” she says.

Budgetary Efficiency
When budgets are tight and service levels must be maintained, operational efficiency rules the day. The current economic downturn has hit Chicago Public Schools hard—in the 2010-2011 school year, the district faces a US$600 million deficit. So wringing the most out of every penny is vital if the district is to uphold its educational mission.

While that process will be painful, the district has tools to make it less so. “Because of the maturity of our financial systems, the quality of the data we have, and the transactional processes we’ve put in place, there’s now a strong focus on performance management and accountability,” says Robert Runcie, chief administrative officer of the district. He adds: “Having good data, and being able to do forecasting and planning with it, is critical to our financial survival.”

The district implemented Oracle E-Business Suite for its financial system in 1999. It also uses Oracle’s PeopleSoft human resources management applications and Oracle Public Sector Budgeting. All of these systems work in concert as Chicago Public Schools strives to manage performance and maximize efficiency—no easy task for the third-largest school district in the United States.

For example, a state-mandated program called School Improvement Plan for Advancing Academic Achievement (SIPAAA) requires each Chicago school to develop a two-year plan for improving student achievement. The plan might include expanding after-school programs, leveraging external partners, or adding specialized staff. In the past, SIPAAA and budgeting processes were handled separately; now, the two are integrated. “When schools put SIPAAA plans together, dollars are committed toward those strategies,” Runcie explains. “In the past, that didn’t happen, and there would be no follow-through or accountability.”

Linking planning and personnel systems to budgets also allows the district to evaluate a program, Runcie says. Chicago Public Schools spends US$60 million a year on a variety of summer school programs, and metrics from enterprise systems are tracking their efficacy. “Now, through our performance management process, we can evaluate what kind of return we’re getting on those programs and reprioritize our budgets accordingly,” Runcie explains.

All of this helps the district use its funds most effectively, disseminating data back to the schools as well as to the planners in the district central office. By combining financial, student, and teacher data, Runcie says the district officials can ensure that they are putting the right person in the classroom with the right resources.

Teacher hiring is also more effective thanks to integrated planning and budgeting. With the old manual budgeting process, a school didn’t know how many teachers it could hire for an upcoming school year until summer. That put the district at a disadvantage, because some of the best teachers were already hired by neighboring school districts long before the school year even ended. “But with Oracle Financials, and our ability to improve our budget processes, we’re able to deliver budgets as early as February,” Runcie says. “That enables our schools to hire earlier, which means we’re getting better-qualified staff.”

Chicago Public Schools’ ability to shorten the budget cycle is also important in tough financial times. For example, the deficit was initially estimated at US$1 billion, but legislative action on pension reform reduced the cut to US$600 million. When that happened, budgets needed to be quickly redrawn. “The cuts are still enormous, and we consider them draconian,” Runcie says. “But they’re not as dire as they would have been.”

And, if more funds are found, new budgets can be generated and implemented quickly. “Being able to do that in two weeks versus two or three months is enormously beneficial when our financial scenarios are changing regularly,” Runcie says.

Tracking Student Performance
Every science teacher knows that, to understand a trend, you need to track data over time. And the longer you track that data, the more reliable your model becomes. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been collecting student performance data—schools attended, test performance, attendance, disciplinary actions, and more—for 11 years and recently made that data available to every teacher in the district.

“I believe we’re the only school district that has a comprehensive database like this,” says Shahryar Khazei, deputy chief information officer of the district. “We had a rule from Day One that we were going to bring as much data as we could, at the detail level, into the warehouse.”

Oracle helped design LAUSD’s data warehouse in 1999. Originally, it was targeted only at district administrators and officials. Although it was large and comprehensive, it had limitations: data was loaded only quarterly, and the tools used to analyze the data were difficult to use. “The schools weren’t benefiting from this as much as we knew they could,” Khazei says.

So with the 2009-2010 school year, the district launched MyData. Built on Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition, MyData made student performance data useful and accessible to classroom teachers through Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition’s intuitive interface. With MyData, a teacher can see his or her students’ current performance, as well as how the students performed in past years. What’s more, teachers can check former students’ performance in future years to see if information was retained and lessons were successful.

MyData expanded the user base of the district’s data warehouse from about 2,000 people to 40,000. Khazei’s team simultaneously addressed the problem of data freshness. The team also automated the task of informing users when new data becomes available. “We started loading data nightly in some cases,” he says. “This really contributes to attracting users to the system.”

Teachers use MyData’s multimeasure reports—real-time interactive dashboards incorporating a range of student data—to help with day-to-day decision-making. “We’re trying to do most of the work of aggregating and compiling the data for them, so they can spend more time analyzing it,” Khazei says. That analysis, ultimately, helps teachers tailor lessons to their students’ needs.

Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition’s ability to correlate long-term student achievement with specific schools, teachers, and teaching methods should prove helpful with LAUSD’s new Teacher Effectiveness Taskforce recommendations. “The task force developed a series of recommendations to revamp the way we evaluate teachers,” Khazei explains. “This is very much the agenda of the federal government and [U.S.] Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in tying student performance to teacher pay and teacher evaluation.”

MyData has also made the district’s IT operations simpler. “Switching to Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition has really been an advantage for us because now, rather than having to maintain many Oracle skill sets, we just deal with Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition,” Khazei says. “That has really been a lifesaver.” It has also been a timely benefit, because the IT department’s operational budget has been cut in half since 2007.

Khazei thinks the lessons learned with MyData will help the district address its budget challenges. “We’ve already tested and proven that SAP’s business warehouse data model is compatible with Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition,” Khazei says, referring to the district’s new financial system. “We intend to introduce budget and financial data into MyData so that principals can have visibility over their budget from the Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition toolset and use the same type of multimeasure reports to track how funds are used.”

Performance Management = Teacher Effectiveness
While grades are the accepted standard for measuring performance at school, they typically only apply to students. At Prince George’s County Public Schools, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, grades of a sort also apply to teachers and staff.

A project in the county—part of the Washington DC-Baltimore metropolitan area—called the Performance Management, Analysis, and Planning Process (PMAPP) establishes goals, action plans, and metrics by which success is measured for each school in the county. “Each of the schools has targets to meet,” explains W. Wesley Watts Jr., Prince George’s County Public Schools’ chief information officer. “We have leading indicators that we use to try to predict where the children will be academically for state assessments and other tests.”

For PMAPP, Oracle Business Intelligence Suite, Enterprise Edition taps into data from the district’s Oracle-based eScholar educational data management system, which holds students’ grades, test scores, attendance, demographics, and more, and displays that information on interactive dashboards. Foundation grants funded development of the underlying data warehouse, which will also be used to create dashboards so teachers and staff can track their own performance in real time. “Performance management is a tool to help them become better employees,” says Watts. “The information is vital to them.”

A PMAPP session works like this: a principal presents performance data from his or her school to a team of administrators and curriculum specialists. (Some principals report directly to the district’s executive cabinet.) The team compares information such as attendance, discipline, and test scores with previous years’ data and leading performance indicators, and establishes a plan to respond to any shortcomings.

For example, if a number of third graders from one specific class are having trouble with reading, resources will be budgeted for a reading specialist for those students and/or extra training or coaching for their teacher.

PMAPP is phasing in over two school years. The first year, 2009-2010, required some heavy data lifting, according to Watts, but that will change with the 2010-2011 school year. “We’re hoping it becomes a more efficient process for the schools, with quicker access to the data—and specifically, the metrics that they’re tracking.”

The PMAPP exercise is also being applied to areas outside the classroom. “Basically, all our divisions support instruction and the improvement of teaching and learning,” Watts says. “So this year all the departments have been required to look at their data. Now they’re trying to meet certain specific targets to improve student achievement. It’s given them more focus.”

Watts adds that factors outside the classroom—and thus not considered within the PMAPP framework—can also contribute to an educator’s effectiveness. Prince George’s County has worked hard—leveraging Oracle E-Business Suite—to reduce or remove administrative burdens and give teachers more time to focus on instruction.

Examples abound. Teachers submit expense reports and request classroom furniture, books, and supplies online. They can also apply for jobs within the district, and handle personnel chores such as address changes over the internet, from their classrooms or from home. (Watts estimates that each online transaction saves the district US$30.) “We have a huge county, 500 square miles,” Watts explains. “For a teacher not to have to drive to the central office just to change their address in the system is wonderful.”

Valuable Resources
Among the lessons that tie together these three K-12 public school districts, one stands out: Simply gathering data isn’t enough. It needs to be put in the hands of educators and administrators who can analyze and act on it.

And while that’s happening more and more, Karen Billings of the SIIA says many school leaders she talks with worry that they’re not keeping up with the private sector, or even with their peers. “Most schools tell me that they assume they’re behind everybody else in the country,” she says. “They feel that they’re working at a disadvantage, that everybody else is doing more than they are. Schools feel they don’t have the resources that businesses have.”

This is unfortunate, she says, because there’s great value in applying IT to the challenges facing K-12 schools—particularly when money is tight. “Recruitment, the grading system, the HR system—all those things have traditionally been very labor-intensive in the education world,” she says. “Putting in systems that streamline communication with parents, or help get grades out, or allow kids to sign up for courses online, all save district personnel time and money.”

For More Information
Learning Gets Personal with Oracle Student Learning
Oracle Solutions for Primary and Secondary Education

Fred Sandsmark lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a frequent contributor to Profit.


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