How To Save $500,000 a Year
And 45 minutes a day in the bargain. From assessment to accountability, the Schools Interoperability Framework is revolutionizing how school districts use and share data.
When it comes to school networking systems, the right hand doesn’t always seem to know what the left hand is doing. Picture this common scenario: In one office, an administrator enters student enrollment data. A teacher down the hall enters grades and attendance information for the same students into an entirely different application, while data related to the lunchroom, physical education, school staffing, and media services—just to name a few—are housed in discrete applications scattered across the district. Passwords are not shared. Data entry is redundant. Programs and systems that could benefit teaching and learning by working together are impeded from doing so; they are simply incompatible. It’s a big waste of money, time, and resources.
Larry Fruth, executive director of the Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA), is trying to change all that. Fruth doesn’t have a product to sell, but school administrators, software vendors, and government officials across the country are lining up to buy into his organization’s data interoperability standard. Known as SIF (Schools Interoperability Framework), the standard has been revolutionizing how school districts function. And with the release of SIF 2.0 in the fall of 2006, the standard is ready to take off.
“SIF empowers PreK–12 educators and technology providers by enabling diverse applications to interact and share data,” says Fruth. “By managing data more efficiently within the PreK–12 environment, SIF allows for the seamless transfer of data between school administrative applications.” This new application increases administration productivity, facilitates instruction, and allows for greater monitoring of students’ progress—an important technological advantage for the accountability necessary under No Child Left Behind guidelines.
“In a typical school district there are between 10 and 15 applications that use the same common data,” says Laurie Collins, project strategist for SIFA. The classroom teacher, the school nurse, and the principal’s office may all need the same set of information, but the data isn’t shareable because platforms or programs are incompatible.
“Without data interoperability, administrators have problems with the quality and consistency of the data in their mission-critical databases,” Collins explains. “SIF provides administrators with the ability to have their systems communicate with each other and share data.”
SIF functions like an information hub—data can be entered, collated, and distributed; they can be created in one place and shared immediately with other school offices that might need it. To achieve these results, SIFA created a set of documents that articulate the common definitions for school data and a set of rules for how data can be shared: the SIF 2.0 standard.
“SIF provides an interoperability standard that doesn’t have to be customized,” Collins says. “The standard provides interoperability without the need for expensive and time-consuming customized software development.”
As well as data distribution, SIF saves time and energy by reducing organization and administrative activity. Says Tim Magner, director of the Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education (DOE), “Software packages—from accounting applications to cafeteria management—require school staff workers to enter data. Without interoperability, the district staff is forced to enter and reenter data to get the necessary information in all of the requisite databases.”
Magner continues, “Interoperability eliminates redundant data entry and reduces labor costs.” Saved labor and increased productivity are expanded with SIF as well, since any changes update immediately and then are available system-wide. “The result is a wide variety of different efficiencies,” Magner asserts.
At the heart of the sharing process is the SIF agent, a software utility tool that acts as a liaison between the primary software application, such as a student information system, and SIF’s Zone Integration Server (ZIS). Agents are responsible for communicating data intelligibly—using Extensible Markup Language (XML)—with the ZIS, which is the central communications hub. ZIS is software that performs like a traffic cop, directing data back and forth between applications. ZIS routes messages and access control. Within this stringent set of constructs, the data configuration is completely up to the individual school district.
The use of XML, a cross-platform, web-based data language, ensures that software vendors can universally apply the SIF standard and that school systems can use SIF regardless of the computers or networks they use. SIF is vendor neutral and platform independent—a guiding principle of SIFA and the foundation for the long-term viability of the SIF standard. “The common data definitions are known as ‘data objects,’” says Collins. “Data objects consist of elements such as a student’s name, address, and phone number. The ability for different software programs to understand these common definitions makes it possible for them to share the information properly.” Similar to web-based online calendars or e-mail applications, SIF encodes information and makes it available from a number of access points.
SIF in Action
At the Liberty (MO) Public School District, implementing SIF has transformed the way administrators and staff work. In the school’s library system, new student data transmits in real-time from the student information system to the library system without the librarian ever touching a keyboard. According to Trey Katzer, technology director at Liberty, this saves the district approximately two to three minutes per new student, and with Liberty’s rate of enrollment growth, those minutes add up. For instance, if the library is processing 30 new students, that’s at least an hour saved in a busy day.
Tracey Oliver, manager of Data Operations at Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Naperville, Illinois, reports similar efficiencies due to SIF implementation. For the 2005–2006 school year, data entry was significantly reduced due to the SIF implementation of the student and call-out systems. Previously, six or seven people would spend a full month on data entry at the start of each school year. Oliver estimates that once SIF is fully implemented, Naperville will have reduced its data entry time by at least two-thirds.
SIF-improved efficiencies also benefit teachers. Another major goal for the interoperability of educational applications is to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. “The long-term goal of the association is to facilitate the transfer of data to inform the teaching and learning process, ultimately leading to increases in student achievement,” says Collins.
The SIF 2.0 Specification, released in the summer of 2006, includes a framework especially for teachers. “The teaching and learning framework is an important area of growth for SIF,” says the Department of Education’s Magner. “SIF provides the ability to take data and make it actionable for teachers.” If a teacher can monitor a student’s individual learning and progress, it makes it easier to tailor individual instruction. “The data can be used to personalize instruction,” Magner continues. “One of the challenges of teaching is to provide a program that addresses a broad range of skills.” Using a SIF data system, a teacher can gain better access to online and digital resources—giving him or her the ability to select different tools to match student needs and track progress.
No Child Left Behind
Beyond administrative efficiencies and the opportunity for improved learning capabilities, SIF is playing a critical role in accountability and reporting. NCLB outlines four basic education reform principles: stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on proven teaching methods.
To comply with the 2001 act, districts are outfitting teachers with tools to more easily collect and consolidate grading information. Initially, these applications operated in an ad hoc fashion, but software vendors have begun to integrate these tools into their products, which means schools can deploy learning management systems that collect, present, and consolidate student achievement data. “Many districts have come to realize that there is room to be more efficient and effective when they have a better handle on their data,” says Magner. “Gaining this understanding gives them the ability to determine whether educational programs are effective and whether or not students are progressing. It also provides them with an opportunity to make changes to these programs, if needed.”
It is not just government entities that are demanding accountability from schools, parents also want school officials to be directly accountable for how individual students are learning. To oblige parents, information needs to be available and easily dispensable. “Districts realize that they have limited dollars to spend on technology and on staffing,” says Collins. “Using a standard like SIF, they can put the money they save into the work they do with students. As accountability is more a focus, digital content becomes more prevalent, and the need to differentiate instruction, interoperability between teaching, and applications becomes vital.
”The advantages of SIF are becoming clear to many in government and education. Virginia and Wyoming have legislatively mandated its use and at least five other states (Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Nevada, and South Dakota) are considering it. The DOE National Educational Technology Plan, Toward a New Golden Age in American Education, speaks directly to the need for data integration. According to the plan, “integrated, interoperable data systems are the key to better allocation of resources, greater management efficiency, and online and technology-based assessment of student performance that empower educators to transform teaching and personalize instruction.” @
For more information on SIF, visit www.sifinfo.org