For years, since the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) first was announced in 1999, school leaders have heard the promises: SIF will make school software programs interoperable, regardless of their manufacturer; it will eliminate the need for multiple data entry; and it will streamline and transform school administrative functions.
Until now, however, many school leaders have been leery of taking SIF’s supporters at their word. Instead, several administrators have been waiting for tangible results from other districts that have implemented SIF solutions before investing in the up-front costs of the technology themselves.
Well, SIF-certified products now have been on the market for several years. A growing number of school systems have had sufficient experience in implementing SIF, and so far, the results appear promising: According to an independent study of three school systems willing to share their SIF experiences–Liberty Public School District in Liberty, Mo.; Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Naperville, Ill.; and Western Heights Public Schools in Oklahoma City, Okla.–SIF has led to measurable cost savings as a result of the easier integration of software applications, more effective use of staff time, and increases in government funding that come from better tracking and reporting of student data.
SIF has the potential to simplify data exchanges among all types of applications: student information systems (SIS) software, transportation and food-service software, library automation systems, and even learning management systems. The easy exchange of information among these various systems brings several additional benefits:
- Administrators can make more informed decisions about individual school or district-wide expenditures;
- Improvements in operational processes can lead to increased efficiency and enhanced student services;
- Increases in state and federal funding can be achieved from more accurate student counts; and
- Teachers can more effectively differentiate instruction and improve student achievement.
All of these benefits enable districts to direct more of their efforts toward their most important mission: educating children.
For its study, Educational Systemics interviewed key educators at each of the three districts, which all had different needs and varying experiences with SIF.
Liberty wanted to use SIF to eliminate duplicate data entry and redundant processes in two of its software applications. Two groups in particular have benefited from this deployment: the IT staff and librarians. Liberty’s IT staff have reduced their data entry and troubleshooting chores, and the librarians have improved their services because they are able to access information in real time.
Naperville’s SIF implementation also started out as an IT solution for eliminating multiple data entry; however, the project has grown into a broader solution, one that has facilitated data-driven decision making as SIF has become the district’s central messaging hub. As Naperville continues its SIF implementation, which just began last year, it expects to develop more sophisticated data analysis that will improve student performance.
Western Heights started its SIF implementation five years ago. The project has enabled the district to acquire "best-of-breed" software applications and build a data warehouse with custom reporting tools that reportedly have raised student achievement and boosted federal funding as a result of more accurate student counts.
While the potential benefits can be alluring, schools have to make an up-front investment in SIF as the first step to implementing the technology. The costs for SIF can vary widely, depending on the nature of the solution desired and what kind of infrastructure (hardware, software, and network) a district already has in place.
If you decide to use existing software applications, the costs are much lower than in cases where wide-scale changes must be made. Fortunately, school leaders contemplating a SIF implementation often find that several of their existing applications already are SIF-certified, thereby eliminating or reducing the need to acquire new software applications.
The three districts studied illustrate the dramatically different possibilities in initial expenses. Liberty used its existing student information and library systems, so no additional software was acquired. Naperville purchased only one new application of the four it implemented. On the other hand, Western Heights elected to purchase "best-of-breed" applications in each area to ensure robust functionality and SIF compliance. As a result, 40 percent of Western Heights’ high costs stemmed from acquiring new applications. In addition, 57 percent of the district’s SIF expenditures to date have been for consulting and the implementation of a data warehouse; however, the district reportedly has recouped that investment through its resulting increases in federal funding and student performance.
Strong leadership and project management were among the keys to success in all three SIF implementations studied. According to Educational Systemics, the implementation process that seemed to work best was a "staged approach": implementing one application at a time until it worked properly, then moving on. Districts typically began with their SIS, because it serves as the main access point for student data. Implementing SIF with existing applications, the study said, obviously was quicker–because there was less of a learning curve involved.
Here’s a closer look at the findings for all three districts.
Liberty Public School District officials faced a classic "good news, bad news" scenario. Enrollment has grown 90 percent over the last 13 years, largely because Liberty consistently has been recognized as one of the state’s top-performing school districts. It has students who routinely score above state and national norms on standardized tests, has been honored by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) for technology excellence, and reportedly is the first district in Missouri to implement SIF. Because enrollment was growing, however, Liberty was having difficulty maintaining consistent data between its SIS (Pearson School Systems’ SASI) and library management system (Follett Software’s Destiny). Students’ contact information was inconsistent and often erroneous. As a result, maintenance of these systems was time consuming and inefficient.
Consequently, Liberty began searching for a technology solution that would allow both systems to communicate without manual intervention. In 2001, Trey Katzer, technology director for the district, attended a presentation at an NSBA conference that depicted SIF as a possible solution to the district’s data interoperability problems. In October 2001, Katzer approached Edustructures, a K-12 technology integration provider, about becoming a test district using SIF to ease data exchanges between two existing applications. After holding numerous training sessions with staff to clarify and refine the district’s data-entry strategy, the district created flow charts of its operations and streamlined its processes. After a thorough evaluation, Liberty tested SIF in two schools in 2002. The district used a retired Dell PowerEdge 2400 as the server on which its ZIS (Zone Integration Server) resided, and the only expenses it incurred were for the ZIS and two SIF agents. Once these were in place, Katzer said, ongoing maintenance was minimal.
The district rolled out the implementation to its remaining 12 buildings the following year, facilitating compatibility between its SIS and library systems. The results have been evident in four areas, according to Liberty officials: reduced data entry time, decreased troubleshooting, improved library services, and enhanced internal communication. As a result of the project, new student data are transmitted in real time from the SIS to the library system without requiring any data entry from librarians. This saves about two to three minutes per new student–and with Liberty’s rapid rate of enrollment growth, those minutes quickly add up.
Another benefit of the real-time update of information between systems is improved library services. Librarians have more time to focus on serving students, and "the new student does not feel bad about holding up the [library check-out] line," noted Katzer. By having a single point of data entry, Liberty also has reduced its data troubleshooting time. With only one system to check, IT staff can find and correct errors much more quickly, freeing up their time to focus on other projects.
In addition, the project has improved internal communication. Centralizing their data has taught Liberty staff members the benefits of working as a team to follow consistent processes. Katzer stated that staff members learned "they are not an island on their own. There are processes and procedures to follow. It got everyone collaborating more."
Based on the success of its SIF implementation, Liberty plans to integrate more applications into SIF in the future: specifically, the district plans to incorporate Horizon Software’s food-service application, Microsoft’s Active Directory, and a data warehouse. As Liberty officials evaluate new software applications in the future, they now will "require SIF certification," said Katzer. By starting small and using existing applications, Liberty was able to make the transition with a minimum of risk and very little staff resistance, according to the study.
Naperville faced a problem common to many school districts: an inability to integrate widely dispersed data.
Three years ago, Naperville was struggling to manage data from eight disparate systems, and the time required for data entry at the start of the school year was particularly vexing. During the first month of school, six or seven employees had to perform data-entry tasks on a full-time basis: Their first two weeks were focused on new student enrollment, while the next two weeks were spent correcting typos and other errors.
The process to keep the data in these systems synchronized was extremely time-consuming; for example, when a new student entered the district in mid-year, it took a week to update the food-service system. Additionally, troubleshooting data errors proved difficult and inefficient. The IT staff had to check multiple applications to find the source of the error, and fixes needed to be made in all of the applications.
Prior to adopting a SIF solution, Naperville had made two attempts to address these problems. First, the district wrote interfaces between the systems that involved manual downloads, manipulation of data, and uploads into other systems. After a six-month effort, Naperville rejected this solution because it required too much monitoring by IT personnel. "The staff were tied to their chairs," said Tracy Oliver, manager of data operations.
The second attempt used Data Transformation Systems (DTS) packages to pass information among the applications. This was problematic because the DTS packages "broke" as new versions or updates of the software were introduced. If a data field changed because of an application upgrade, the DTS process failed and required reprogramming or manual intervention.
After examining SIF, Naperville officials discovered that a number of applications they already owned had corresponding SIF agents–thus lowering the cost to get started. District officials started their SIF implementation last July, beginning with two existing applications and gradually adding more capabilities as they installed new applications. The district also decided to work with a systems integrator, Integrity Technology Solutions, to "avoid the pitfalls" that can arise in data integration projects, Oliver said.
Naperville currently runs four applications on its SIF platform. District officials had planned to implement a data warehouse at the end of this school year and add three more applications–for food service, library management, and special-education tracking–next year.
The estimated cost for Naperville’s project, which includes all planned software implementations through 2008, is $271,000. Most of this cost comes from new functionality and new software applications that Naperville chose to add but weren’t required for SIF success. The costs directly associated with SIF–the ZIS, SIF agents, and general SIF agent deployment–are $51,000, or 19 percent of the total cost of the project, according to the report.
Naperville officials report that their SIF implementation has gone smoothly so far. For the 2005-2006 school year, data entry was significantly reduced. With a single point of data entry, troubleshooting the data became much easier and faster. There is now only one place to go to find and correct an error. "What previously took one week now takes a couple of hours," explained Oliver. These savings free up the IT staff for other projects.
One challenge to implementing SIF has been creating a solution for agents that do not share all the data required for the specified degree of integration. Oliver recommends that, if you’re going to move forward with SIF, you should "carefully analyze when a vendor tells you they are SIF compliant. Review the source application to uncover any problems with the SIF messages." Naperville now asks two questions of every vendor: Are you SIF certified? And, what version of the SIF specification do you support?
With the interoperability afforded by SIF, Naperville is finding more ways to use applications that conform to SIF to address data analysis and broaden No Child Left Behind goals. Its SIF implementation is "becoming the messaging hub for everything in the district," noted Oliver. The district has been adding an easy-to-use interface, or "dashboard," so administrators and teachers can quickly and easily view student profiles. The next step will be to add local assessment data, survey data, perception data, and human-resources data and use analytical tools to help predict how students will do on high-stakes tests. The goal is to identify students "falling off the path" sooner, said Dave Chiszar, director of assessment, so the appropriate intervention can be provided.
Down the road, as a result of these measures, the district projects it will see growth in student performance. Naperville plans to use predictive analytics to "affect the money that is spent on intervention programs," noted Oliver. Faster reporting of assessment data and analysis to principals and teachers will enable assessment staff to focus on higher-level work. "The job will change from putting data together to understanding data," predicted Chiszar. As a result, the quality of the data analysis is expected to improve dramatically.
Western Heights lies in the heart of Oklahoma City and serves 3,200 students from culturally diverse backgrounds. More than 70 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price meals, and there is a 40-percent mobility rate. Like many other districts across the country, Western Heights was challenged by the increasing demand for up-to-date information needed to manage the district. District officials identified and purchased the best software applications in each functional area; however, without interoperability, these systems provided limited benefits. Western Heights concluded that adopting SIF as the standard for its technology solutions would empower stakeholders at all levels of the organization to improve decision-making and, ultimately, the quality of education.
In 2003, Western Heights began its SIF implementation with a "proof of concept" project focused on its SIS and one other application. After a year, the district began integrating its nutrition, library, and gradebook programs into SIF and continued to add applications in a staged manner, ensuring stability before adding more each year. Western Heights worked closely with Mizuni, a K-12 SIF integrator, to build custom agents, the ZIS, and advanced reports.
From 2002 to 2005, the district reportedly spent more than $1 million on new applications, consulting, and implementation to deploy its integrated SIF solution. Western Heights chose to purchase new, "best-of-breed" software that was SIF certified, for a total cost of $398,000. The district then added a data warehouse and custom reporting tools. Implementing these tools required significant help from consultants to adapt the district’s workflow and make other required changes. Thus, the data warehouse, reporting tools, and consulting cost the district an additional $573,000. The $34,000 that Western Heights spent in direct SIF implementation costs–the ZIS, SIF agents, and general SIF agent deployment–marked the smallest category in terms of dollars spent on the solution. Western Heights now spends roughly $95,000 annually to maintain these systems.
Western Heights used eRate funds to buy the required hardware: 10 servers that reside at the district level, one for each application. No additional staff members were needed to support this implementation; in fact, by integrating its various administrative programs, Western Heights reportedly was able to reduce its IT staff by two full-time employees, so four people now manage its systems. To handle teacher training, Western Heights uses a train-the-trainer model. The district hired four former teachers whose full-time responsibility is to train teachers on the new systems and processes, and it uses federal funding to support these positions.
Because Western Heights was an early adopter of SIF, the implementation presented some unique challenges. The process was "hard to get going," said Joe Kitchens, the district’s superintendent. "There was not much ground broken five years ago. There was so much work to be done, which slowed down the process."
The implementation was not only a technical challenge, but also an exercise in initiating change. Administrators and principals met twice per month during the entire first year of the project to establish consistent data rules, codes, and processes. The end result was a revision of the way school operations were conducted.
The district has found its work worthwhile. By establishing a central registration for all new students, Western Heights now has a more accurate count of its student population, which–in turn–has led to an increase of about $1.3 million in state and federal funding over the last 18 months.
The district has seen an increase in state aid as a direct result of its more accurate and reliable reporting. For example, Western Heights has been able to identify gifted students more effectively. Three years ago, there were 265 students who were identified as entitled to gifted services. Now that the district’s data systems and synthesized reports more accurately reflect who meets these test-score criteria, 80 to 90 additional students have been identified as gifted. At $1,000 per gifted student, this has resulted in an increase in state funding of $80,000 to $90,000.
Western Heights also has experienced an increase in federal funding as a result of the project. District officials say they have received $750,000 in additional funding each year from their more accurate tracking of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Before SIF, Western Heights observed a significant decrease in enrollment in the federal school lunch program from its elementary schools to its high school: enrollment was 50 percent at the elementary schools, 40 percent at the middle school, and 30 percent at the high school. This drop was unexpected, because the same elementary students fed into the district’s middle and high school–so the percentage should have been consistent from one grade level to the next. Now, with its more accurate data and the enhanced reporting capabilities of the Mizuni ZIS, Western Heights is able to identify and update its information when a family’s meal status changes or when there is a discrepancy in meal status between siblings. All of the district’s schools now maintain a similar and consistent meal status percentage of 70 to 75 percent.
The percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches qualifies the district for additional Title I funds for disadvantaged students. The same Title I percentages also translate into eligibility for several other federally funded programs, too.
The increase in district funding that has resulted from its more accurate tracking of student information has given Western Heights the opportunity to invest in new programs. Western Heights has been able to move to full-day kindergarten and implement a full-day early childhood education program as well. While it’s too early to see the results of these programs on student achievement, Kitchens is confident that the investment in these programs will pay off, too.
The three districts studied found that SIF implementations require a significant investment in time, resources, training, and personnel. "With the exception of the janitorial staff, nobody in the district is doing their job the way they were three years ago," said Lisa McLaughlin, assistant superintendent for Western Heights.
Such dramatic changes are becoming more common among school districts as they respond to more competitive pressures. In return for their investments in SIF technology, however, districts are improving the efficiency of their computer systems, more effectively using their personnel, enhancing the learning process, and reaping greater funding.
Based on the success in the Liberty Public School District, Katzer concluded: "I would encourage other districts to take a hard look at SIF."
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer living in Sudbury, Mass., who writes frequently about education and technology.
Schools Interoperability Framework Association
Liberty Public School District
Naperville Community Unit School District 203
Western Heights Public Schools