Ever wonder what the buzz around interoperability is all about? Interoperability is not just jargon; it’s the key to unlocking seamless communication among different data systems, applications and devices. In the realm of education, it means breaking down barriers so that educational technologies and data systems can collaborate effectively, ultimately enhancing the educational experience for leaders, staff, specialists, teachers, students and parents.

But making interoperability work is complex, and education service agencies (ESAs) play a pivotal role in this landscape. They provide various support services to local education agencies (LEAs), such as schools and school districts, helping them implement educational initiatives, navigate regulations and improve educational outcomes. The ESAs often provide guidance, training and support to LEAs in selecting, implementing, and integrating edtech products into their educational programs.

Recently, EdSurge spoke with ESA representatives to learn more about the importance of collaboration for making data interoperability a reality across education agencies and edtech providers. Without interoperability, data silos emerge, making it difficult for stakeholders to access and use the full range of capabilities offered by different edtech products. Adopting a data standard, such as the Ed-Fi Data Standard, enables education agencies to integrate multiple systems and tools, share data securely and leverage technology effectively to improve teaching, learning and administrative processes.

Tammy Evans, Kimberly Nidy and Jeff Pendill are among the advocates leading the charge. For Evans, director of the Michigan Data Hub (MiDataHub), the adoption of the Ed-Fi Data Standard not only addressed the immediate challenges of fragmented student data but also standardized data practices, transforming Michigan’s education-data landscape and directly affecting 1.5 million students in over 880 LEAs. Nidy, a certified education technology leader who serves as the director of technology at North Canton City Schools in Ohio, also highlighted the importance of developing a dashboard to query a live gradebook to better support her district’s teachers, administrators and 4,300 students with real-time data. For Pendill, a technical project manager for the [College, Career and Military Readiness] CCMR Insights dashboard at Region 10 Education Service Center (ESC) in Texas, interoperability has been a long-standing focus in his region, which supports 130 LEAs in managing data. While North Canton just launched their dashboard in fall 2023, the Hub and CCMR Insights have been live for several years.

EdSurge: What benefits has your organization experienced since implementing the Ed-Fi Data Standard?

Nidy: Now that North Canton City Schools has a working dashboard, we have already started to build narratives around what is happening in our classrooms. We plan to work on resources, tough conversations, pedagogical practices and grading policies. The possibilities are endless now that we have access to this data!

Evans: MiDataHub has experienced enhanced interoperability, cost-efficiency and real-time insights. The Ed-Fi Alliance data standards establish true interoperability capabilities by seamlessly integrating various systems and tools without costly replacements. This has streamlined operations and allowed school districts to leverage their existing technologies. As a not-for-profit organization with zero licensing costs, they have provided a cost-effective solution for Michigan. Eliminating expenses related to building and maintaining educational dashboards with district and vendor integration control has resulted in significant savings for districts.

Working with the Ed-Fi Alliance has empowered educators with complete, real-time views of student performance. This agility allows teachers to adapt learning plans to individual student needs. Additionally, the system has reduced the time spent generating reports, enabling educators to access accurate reports with just a few clicks.

The Michigan Data Hub currently stands at the forefront of interoperability. The implementation of the Ed-Fi Data Standard has seamlessly integrated diverse systems and tools across districts, ISDs [intermediate school districts] and state entities. This standardized environment ensures efficient collaboration, enabling data to flow seamlessly from districts to statewide entities, including state reporting. The governance structure, with representation from various stakeholders, facilitates early identification of new data needs, ensuring alignment with MiDataHub’s capabilities.

Pendill: Benefits for Region 10 include the capability to assist LEAs in verifying and rectifying data inconsistencies within their student information system, enabling LEAs to assess their House Bill 3 (HB 3) bonus achievements accurately and facilitating real-time, hands-on collaboration with LEAs. This has a [favorable] impact on actual students during their existing academic year.

What lessons has your organization learned from the process of standardizing data?

Pendill: One of the key takeaways from our findings is the widespread involvement of multiple individuals in handling the data. It proves beneficial to offer an alternative perspective on the data and be able to guide and comprehend the insights it provides to our LEAs. We strive to incorporate and ensure compliance with all supporting systems while also establishing effective communication to provide a unified and succinct perspective.

Evans: The most significant lesson learned during the adoption of the Ed-Fi Data Standard is the transformative power of collaboration and standardization. Bringing together various stakeholders and standardizing data practices allowed Michigan to overcome the challenges of fragmented student data.

This standardized approach not only streamlined administrative processes but also substantially benefited teachers and students. Teachers gained a holistic, real-time view of student performance, enabling more agile and personalized teaching. Reducing time spent on generating reports meant educators could focus more on teaching and adapting learning plans to each student’s unique situation. For students, the implementation ensured that their data seamlessly followed them, contributing to a more continuous and consistent educational experience, especially when changing schools. A 2016 Return On Investment (ROI) study showed that Michigan’s legislative investment of $2.2 million saved over $52 million per year in district data integrations.

The lesson learned emphasizes that collaborative, standardized solutions not only enhance administrative efficiency but also directly contribute to better teaching and learning experiences.

What are your organization’s next steps?

Evans: Looking ahead, the Ed-Fi Alliance is poised to play a pivotal role in supporting MiDataHub’s evolution. The standardized framework provided by the Ed-Fi Data Standard allows for the streamlined incorporation of new initiatives, enhancing collaboration between districts and statewide entities. The ongoing evaluation of diverse initiatives, including integrating Michigan Virtual data and MAISA (Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators) planned initiatives like Michigan’s Early Childhood Connect, highlights the data standard’s adaptability and empowering value across educational landscapes. The data standard also fosters efficiency, supports research initiatives, and provides integrated, actionable and accessible data.

MiDataHub continues to evaluate and implement new initiatives, ensuring that the platform remains a valuable resource for research, compliance reporting and data quality processes. Planned initiatives, such as Michigan’s Early Warning Management System, Michigan’s Coaching Connect and the Michigan Early Childhood Rollup, showcase the commitment to expanding the platform’s capabilities. The ongoing assessment and integration of diverse initiatives underscore MiDataHub’s pivotal role in enhancing data collaboration and driving positive educational outcomes through the purposeful development of statewide data collection and data analytics intended for all levels of educators with the lens of student learning.

Nidy: We are interested in expanding beyond what we have currently built. We have been working with our county Information Technology Center (ITC) and are now looking to set up ODSs [operational data stores] and dashboards with other schools in our county. From there, we envision starting up projects at other ITCs around the state to provide a network of data services using the Ed-Fi Data Standard that will give school districts access to their data, along with reporting resources.

Pendill: As part of our organization’s ongoing efforts, we are currently collaborating with the Ed-Fi Alliance to advance the development of the Texas Education Exchange consortium. This initiative aims to foster a cohesive educational environment across a significant portion of the state, enabling the use of standardized tools and ultimately enhancing student outcomes.

The Ed-Fi Data Standard will help reshape Region 10’s future by granting the organization the ability to retrieve data from various years, thereby enabling the identification of trends and current statuses.

What advice would you give other ESAs or school districts considering the adoption of a data standard?

Nidy: The best advice is to start with a solid use case. The fact that we were very specific in what we were attempting to achieve was pivotal to our success. I also recommend finding partners to work with to ensure sustainability and future-proof the project.

Evans: The advice for fellow ESAs or school districts contemplating the adoption of a data standard is clear: embrace collaboration, standardization and interoperability. The success of MiDataHub in Michigan, with a return on investment of over 1000 percent, attests to the transformative power of adopting the Ed-Fi Data Standard. The platform’s adaptability, cost-efficiency and support for diverse initiatives make it a strategic choice. Establishing a governance structure that includes representation from various stakeholders ensures early identification and alignment of current and new data needs. The net savings, increased efficiency and empowered educational technologies are testaments to the tangible benefits for those who choose to implement the Ed-Fi Data Standard.

Pendill: Have courage, be daring and maintain a steadfast commitment to embracing the future and using data to improve your organization’s outcomes.