Like most states, Minnesota contains many school districts that are quite small; one district, for example, has just 500 students. Fortunately, the state is home to TIES, a joint-powers cooperative that is owned by 46 Minnesota school districts. TIES (which is actually a school district by charter in itself, though it doesn’t have any students) offers analytics packages to its members via Cognos, a company that was purchased by IBM in 2007.
TIES gives districts the opportunity to use high-powered tools they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford, said Ben Silberglitt, the organization’s director of software applications. “We help districts set benchmark target scores on local assessments, so they can use those assessments as indicators for state assessments,” said Silberglitt. “This helps them identify early on whether students are on track, not just by student but by student population.”
Schools then are able to pinpoint where they are effective and where they are not. “For example, they might learn how effective they are with English language learners who are below target. They might learn they are really effective with Spanish-speaking students, but not with students who have other languages spoken at home,” he said. “Or maybe it’s attendance: This particular population has a low attendance level and is having trouble in school. That helps [the schools] plan for student success.”
TIES began using Cognos technology seven years ago, but the predictive analytics element has significantly come into play in the last five years. TIES created a data warehouse to give its member districts not just easy access to their data, but the ability to connect disparate sources of data—looking, for instance, at how attendance impacts instruction. “Enterprise software systems are not designed to get data out in order to answer those kinds of questions,” Silberglitt said. “So putting that warehouse layer on top has been great in terms of answering those questions on the fly.”
The districts do not have to approach TIES with their questions; TIES provides not only the software, but also the training to use it effectively. “When districts want to move forward with a certain model, we show them the process behind answering those questions, such as what types of reports they need to run,” he explained.
The school districts that have taken advantage of their access to predictive analytics have found that using data in this way has made them much more effective.
“They can make decisions more quickly and are more proactive about changing their approaches. They might discover, for example, that they need to apply more of their resources to the third grade, because they have a cohort there who hasn’t grown as much as the other cohorts in the last two years. When they learn that, they know they need to shift things around. And we know that leads to better outcomes,” Silberglitt said.