Before Data, Before Privacy… Start With The Questions
Now… With that out of the way, I want to ask a very simple question, and I recognize that it’s the type of question that could label me as a heretic within our new, highly aspirational Edtech space but in my humble opinion, it’s where we all conversations about student privacy need to start.
Why do we need all this data anyway?
This, in my opinion, is the very first question parents and educators should be asking. Today, states and the Federal government collect massive amounts of data on students and to be fair, there are some amazing insights being gleaned that help us understand what has been happening and what is happening now. In some cases, the data can help us understand what might happen tomorrow. That’s powerful stuff but from my observation it seems like many of these benefits have been mined and discovered from a much larger set of data than necessary. Also, data systems can be very expensive.
We need to remember that data on its own does not tell us anything. Data is abstract and like a Jackson Pollock painting can be interpreted in innumerable ways. Where one person sees progress, another might see decline. One of the most important concepts I learned in Marketing is that people will tend to see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. When it comes to big data, if you go on looking hard enough for something, you’ll eventually find it.
I get where all the excitement around educational data is coming from. We don’t know what we don’t know and the prospect of searching through big messy piles of data appeals to the explorer in all of us, but before we dive in we need to take a step back and ask ourselves exactly what it is we’re looking for.
We need to start with the questions.
Instead of collecting any and all data, and using that data to see what we can possibly see, we should start with a healthy, open discussion to try and figure out exactly which questions we want answers for. Are the questions good questions, or would their answers simply be interesting with little potential for impact? Are there some questions where the best answers come from humans instead of data machines? Are there bad questions? Who should be asking which questions? Are some questions better left at the local level, or do we need the state getting involved to give us the answers to our questions?
As a parent who worries about his kids privacy, my first question about data is simply “What are the questions you’re trying to answer?” In every case, I have yet to find a reason to send PII beyond the school or district level.
Starting with the questions may seem obvious, but in most states the current approach is to collect as much data as possible, as frequently as possible and to store that data in gigantic state longitudinal data systems (SLDS) for analysis. For student information system administrators, this dragnet operation causes more than a few headaches. Entering and validating data for compulsory state reporting can be a real time suck leaving little time for in-house data analysis.
For SIS companies, staying abreast of reporting requirements for each state requires a dedicated state reporting department. It’s expensive and the costs are passed down to schools. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’d like to invite you to check out the documentation for the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System. (note… the doc is 34MB). Next time you hear someone complain about how expensive education is in America, send them this.
What on earth does the state need all this data for? Well, I’m not an expert, but I think the argument goes something like this. Economies of scale allow the state to build more powerful dashboards and analytics that schools would not otherwise be able to afford on their own. Also, Big Data.
I think there was a time where the first answer was more true, but today new companies like LearnSprout are providing schools with affordable reporting options that typically outperform systems provided by the state. Schoolzilla, Mileposts, Always Prepped and BrightBytes are great examples of companies that are helping schools answer their most pressing questions while keeping data local. As far as Big Data goes, the jury is still out. Researchers have used large data sets in the past to help us understand patterns in chronic absenteeism, drop-outs and suspension rates. Perhaps big state data systems can provide new insights that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with smaller, local data. (I kinda doubt it.)
When we start with the questions one of the things that becomes immediately apparent is how little data we actually need. Small data reduces costs, simplifies implementation and improves performance significantly. LearnSprout for example, taps a short list of fields and is able to analyze five or ten years’ worth of attendance data for an entire school district in a matter of seconds. This can include data as recent as yesterday which is pretty cool considering a lot of SLDS rely on bi-annual data from schools. Oh yeah. LearnSprout is free too.
At LearnSprout, questions drive our product roadmap. Here are some of the questions we’re answering today:
- For each grade level, how many students are on track, off track or borderline for college readiness? Why are they off-track or borderline?
- What is the trend in absenteeism/tardiness/suspensions/illness/etc. across the district over the past year? What is the trend for a school or group of schools? (E.g. All elementary schools)
- How does that compare to previous years? Are we getting better or worse?
- Which demographic subgroups at the district/schools/school are having the worst attendance?
- What does attendance look like for one specific sub-group (E.g. Fourth grade, African American males) How has that changed over the years?
- How do suspensions, illness, unexcused absences, etc. compare between subgroups?
- For all time, which grade levels have had the worst attendance?
- Which students have missed 10% or more of school? (Chronic Absenteeism Report)
- What is the complete history of a student’s attendance?
We are of course, just getting started. We’re constantly adding to an ever-growing list of new questions, but I cannot understate the rigor behind the process of selecting the ones we want to address. Ruthless prioritization through constant customer validation keeps us focused on what’s going to make the biggest impact. It’s a worthwhile process that forces our customers to take a step back and think hard about exactly what their Key Performance Indicators are, and what they could be.
We don’t need an SLDS to build dashboards or an early-warning system. This is not to say that SLDS doesn’t have a place in the edtech landscape, but schools already have all the data they need to answer their questions… Why not cut out the middlemen and analyze the data where it lives?
Chronic Absenteeism - How could we possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?
I have a confession to make. When I was in high school I was a less than stellar student. My grades were mediocre, my attendance was spotty and if it weren’t for a small group of studious friends and some amazing teachers I might not have made it through. My mother was a single parent of two teenage boys. She worked long hours as a materials planner during the height of the semiconductor boom, back when “Silicon Valley” was a reference to actual silicon. Busy as she was, it was difficult for her to stay on top of my brother and I and we knew how to play the game. Cutting school wasn’t a thoughtless act of ambivalence, it was a carefully managed effort with conspirators, fantastical fiction and cover-ups. I liken it to Ferris Bueller’s antics or Frank Morris’s efforts in Escape from Alcatraz, constantly chipping away at a jail cell while taking care to not raise any red flags.
Two of these guys are awesome. One is simply “rad”.
Today the game has changed considerably with new technology working for and against students seeking their own escape, but the motivation to skip school is as strong as ever. I think we could all agree that this warrants more attention, but before we start a deep discussion on school design and cultivating intrinsic motivation, we must first take a step back and get an accurate measure of where we’re at by asking: What’s our Chronic Absenteeism Rate (CAR)?
The generally accepted definition of chronic absenteeism is when a student is absent for 10% or more of school days. This includes absences for any reason, including illness, suspension and parent excused absences. This is an important change from precedent which typically focuses only on truancy for intervention. Research shows that when students miss school for any reason, they are at a much greater risk for academic failure and not graduating. A school or district’s CAR is simply the percentage of students who are classified as Chronically Absent.
Identifying chronically absent students seems like it should be simple enough to figure out, but in practice we find that, like my younger self, many students evade red flags by spreading absenteeism out with partial day attendance.
Consider the following example of a typical freshman schedule. Over the course of the week, this student missed 6 classes out of a possible 30.
The challenge is how “Present for the Day” is calculated. In most California districts, students need only be present for a single period to earn a full day’s credit for attendance, so this student would have 100% daily attendance. Other states require at least a half-day to earn a day’s credit, but even in these more strict cases, this student would be counted as present across the board.
I think there’s a simpler solution that would normalize chronic absenteeism calculation across all states. If we simply divide the number of class absences for each student by the total number of possible class meetings, we’d get a far more accurate number that accounts for partial day attendance. So in this example, 6 class absences divided by 30 class meetings is .2 or 20%. If this pattern is consistent across the year, this student would be severely chronically absent.
The next step is to calculate the CAR of the school or district by dividing the total count of chronically absent students by the total student population. Finally, using live attendance data from the SIS, measure CAR for the current year on a daily basis using a line chart, and compare to previous years to see if the school is improving or if there is a trend in absenteeism on the horizon.
Of course, I’m making this sound really easy. Those who work with data from their SIS know how unwieldy it can be. For any medium to large district, a single years’ data could include a million or more records making it nearly impossible to get timely reports. I think this is part of the reason LearnSprout has taken off these past few months. Schools need help accessing and interpreting their data and we make it really, really easy.
Introducing College Readiness & Other News
Some of you may have already heard the big news, but in case you missed it, we recently launched a new College Readiness Tracking Tool that will greatly simplify matters for high school counselors. The tool is intentionally simple on the surface, but under the hood is a lot of moving parts that combine GPA, course completion and SAT/ACT scores to provide “On Track”, “Off Track” and “Borderline” status indicators for each grade level. Click HERE to learn more.
I’m very excited to introduce our three newest team members Nidhi Hebbar, Andrew Shim and Alex Meng. You can read their full bios HERE.
Alex has been on board for a little while now, but Nidhi and Andrew are on their way out to San Fran as we speak. We just can’t wait for them to get here… Hurry up guys!!
We get a lot of questions about what we do and how we help educators. But just like raw data, sometimes our abundant answers can leave folks scratching their heads. Well, with some help from master story teller Chris Gibson we’ve got a fun little video that says it all.
Infinite Campus Integration
Last week our amazing development team shipped a direct integration method for Infinite Campus. This deep integration provides near real-time updates feeding live Analytics for college readiness, chronic absenteeism and multi-year longitudinal reports. As always, LearnSprout is free for schools and districts, allows for an unlimited number of users and can scale up to districts of all sizes, including state-level implementations. (Kentucky, South Dakota… we’re looking at you guys!)
For the modern-day entrepreneur, fundraising can be distracting, frustrating or even somewhat terrifying. I thought it was awesome. Over the course of several months, we met with many amazing people who offered support and guidance. Once all was said and done, we secured $4.2 million to help grow our team and to give us some time to make LearnSprout amazing. TechCrunch ran a story on the news. You can read it HERE.
I know what you’re thinking, but stay with me for a minute. Over the past few months we have shared in the growing concern parents and educators have for protecting student privacy. The rancor surrounding the discussion of what data is needed, why it is needed, by whom, where it goes, who can see it, how it is used, who it belongs to and when it is deleted hits right at the center of what we do. As custodians of student data, we are obliged to address these concerns.
For most of us, our eyes tend to glaze over when we become immersed in legalese, so we worked with our very patient and amazing lawyer to craft something that could be easily understood. Here are a few of the key highlights:
- LearnSprout does not share, sell, or use personally identifiable information for marketing purposes.
- We only store PII for currently enrolled students and will delete PII for any student no longer enrolled within 60 days of notification.
- If you choose to discontinue use of LearnSprout, we will permanently delete all information associated with your account from the Service.
At the end of the day, LearnSprout is a tool for educators. I think Anthony summed it up best when he said “Educators use LearnSprout to analyze their data, not the other way around.” I believe our new policy raises the bar for EdTech companies and serves to protect students’ privacy, but we want to get this right. Please take a moment to read our new policy HERE and send us your feedback to email@example.com.
Student Data, Security and Privacy - A transparent look at what we do and our intentions for the future.
As a company that works with student data, our number one concern above all else is to protect our customers’ data and the privacy of their students. There is today, a healthy skepticism surrounding for-profit companies and their intentions for student data. To that end we would like to bring sunshine to what we do at LearnSprout, how we protect student privacy and how we intend to “keep the lights on” here at LearnSprout HQ down the road.
When we founded LearnSprout in January of 2012, our team set out to leverage our combined strengths to provide a solution for educators who ask the question: “Why do our schools collect all this data if we hardly ever use it?” During the next eighteen months, we met with hundreds of principals and district administrators who shared their frustrations and articulated their desire for a way to find insights from the data they’re obligated to keep for operational and compliance purposes. Like most young startups, we tested many ideas, always searching for the solution that would bring the greatest benefit to our customers. It was, and continues to be a process of constant feedback and product refinement, but through it all is a guiding principle that serves as the foundation of every decision we make:
We will protect student privacy.
At LearnSprout, we take data security and the privacy of your students very seriously. Protecting personally identifiable information (PII) of your students is at the very core of what we do. Once the connection to LearnSprout is made, your data is secured on a remote, dedicated server. Your data is kept separate from other Subscribing Organizations, so there is no possible way for other LearnSprout customers to see your data. LearnSprout is FERPA compliant and adheres to all other federal and state laws in regard to student data. LearnSprout does not share, sell, or use personally identifiable information for marketing purposes.
With this promise comes a commitment to stay up-to-date with the latest best practices for data security and to ensure that we are adhering to the highest standards.
Our purpose is to act as an agent of the school or district, operating in their best interests. Educators use LearnSprout to analyze their data, not the other way around. As a free service, many folks have questioned our plan for revenue. Fundamentally, we believe all schools should be able to easily access daily attendance, identify students at-risk of dropping out, and track high school students’ path towards college readiness. The premium service we intend to launch sometime later this year will offer an option to upgrade for customers who need more advanced features than what’s available through the free service.
Put simply, what we seek to build with LearnSprout is a simple solution to a complex problem while ensuring that student privacy is never compromised.
Three Big Announcements From LearnSprout
Since we launched LearnSprout Dashboard just nine months ago, we have analyzed data for more than 2,000 schools in 47 states and 9 countries making LearnSprout one of the fastest growing companies in K-12 education. This amazing growth has been possible thanks to an extremely simple setup and powerful analytics to help fight chronic absenteeism and identify historical trends. Today, I am incredibly excited to share three huge updates that will dramatically increase LearnSprout’s impact:
College Readiness Dashboard
Over the past year, we have been working closely with our customers, developing a solution that will help schools deliver on the promise of public education during a time of shrinking budgets and dwindling resources. What we’ve come up with is a tool that will transform how high school counselors monitor college readiness for their students.
According to the American Counseling Association, the national average of students to counselors is nearly twice the recommended rate with each counselor seeing 471 students on average during the 2010-2011 school year. In California, it’s 1:1016. With such high ratios, most counselors are primarily concerned with making sure their students are on track to graduate. As a result, there is usually little time to actively monitor college readiness on a regular basis.
Today, most student information systems offer only a single-student view of student progress with no ability to ascertain how a student body is progressing as a whole. This requires counselors to examine each student, one at a time to identify the group in need of additional support. Furthermore, these systems tend to focus on graduation progress and do not include dedicated tools for monitoring college readiness.
With our new college readiness dashboard, counselors will have access to a live overview showing the total number of students in each grade level that are on-track, borderline or off-track for college. By leveraging a direct connection with a school or district’s SIS, LearnSprout is able to combine GPA, course completion and test scores to present a high-level view of a high school student body’s progress. Counselors can then drill down into a segment to work with individual students and log interventions. But this isn’t a one-size fits all solution… Each state university system typically maintains its own set of subject area requirements, test score thresholds and has a unique GPA calculation. To meet these unique needs, LearnSprout is preconfigured, eliminating setup and making it possible to track students based on the unique requirements of each state.
This birds-eye view hasn’t been possible and until now, counselors have had a tough time keeping a handle on their massive case-loads. The best part? This powerful new tool is free, just like the rest of LearnSprout and is available today! It’s our hope that with the college readiness dashboard, counselors will have more time to work with students, nudging them onto the college track and improving their long-term chances for success.
Infinite Campus Integration
Today I’m also excited to announce that we have completed our integration with Infinite Campus. This opens the door to more than 500 Infinite Campus schools who have already registered for LearnSprout since we first went live last summer and expands LearnSprout’s potential reach to nearly 20 million students. Infinite Campus users who are accustomed to viewing raw, abstract data using IC’s ad-hoc reporting tool will appreciate LearnSprout’s free dashboard with easy to understand reports and a simple 5-minute setup.
Finally, I’m thrilled to finally let the cat out of the bag and announce that LearnSprout has secured $4.2 million in Series A funding from our friends at Formation 8, Samsung Ventures and former Blackboard president, Justin Tan. This strong showing of support actually came through last August, but we wanted to wait on delivering the news until our new college readiness dashboard was ready to ship. Over the past few months we have grown our team and expanded our reach across the country, attending conferences and meeting with customers. With the investment we are now in a position to focus our efforts around improving LearnSprout by adding even more features and polishing the user experience. As I’ve said before, with the data we are able to help educators access, there’s no shortage of cool things we can build and we can’t wait to get some of these ideas out the door and into the hands of our customers!
LearnSprout Services Updated to Address CVE-2014-0160 (“Heartbleed” bug)
You may have read or heard through the media about “Heartbleed”, a flaw in a software library called OpenSSL that potentially compromises secure internet connections.
For technical details, you can learn more from these external resources:
At LearnSprout, as soon as we learned of the issue, our engineering team assessed this vulnerability and applied the relevant software patches to all services.
We have no indication that LearnSprout’s services were targeted or have been compromised due to this bug, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation, take all precautionary actions and vigilantly protect your data.
If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to send us a note to firstname.lastname@example.org
- The LearnSprout Engineering Team
8 Things Schools Can Do to Boost Attendance
Last week I was driving back to my home in Sacramento when I got a call from my wife. My 7-year old boy came home from school not feeling well. “I think he’s got the flu.” she said. “How can you tell?” I asked. “He’s got a fever.” she replied. I bit my tongue. She was calling from the car phone and she doesn’t keep a thermometer in her purse, but I know all too well from experience that despite the fact that this diagnosis came from her highly scientific back-of-the-hand field test, she was right more often than not. Sure enough, by the time I got home his fever had hit 103°. In total, he would miss three days of school, a school dance performance he had been practicing with his classmates all year for, a piano lesson and a Cub Scout meeting. We would all lose a lot of sleep…
Those of us who have been in K-12 education long enough can tell you that illness is one of the leading causes of absenteeism in our schools, but how does it compare to other causes? In working with customers over the past couple months, we’ve had the rare opportunity to view longitudinal attendance data spanning multiple years. Typically this is about four or five years of data and depending on the granularity of their attendance codification system, we can see highly seasonal trends with students missing school due to illness. So far, it appears that trends in schools are highly predictable and generally match the analysis provided by Google Flu Trends and the CDC, but here’s what’s interesting: Almost without exception, illness appears to make up not just the majority, but the vast majority of absences.
Here’s an example from one customer we worked with. In this chart we see seasonal trends with illness for the past three-and-a-half years for 38 schools combined. This is similar most data with trends spiking typically in late January and early February:
We ran the report a second time for the same three-and-a-half-years, but included all attendance codes that meant the student was absent from school for any reason. In this chart, we unpack nearly half-a-million attendance events and break them down by attendance code. Medically verified and parent verified illness combined to make up 55% of the overall absences. Coming in second at 20% were unexcused absences followed by unverified absences coming in at 5%.
Of course, I recognize that like my wife’s back-of-the-hand technique, our anecdotal observation is not entirely scientific. That being said, our observations seem to have support from the research community. One study from Texas by the E3 Alliance and Children’s Optimal Health found that nearly half of absences were due to acute illness. A similar study in Seattle conducted during flu season showed that for every 100 children there were 63 missed school days. In October 2009, the flu nearly doubled the absentee rate in the D.C. area leaving some campuses with as many as one-fifth of students out sick.
That’s a lot of school to miss. Thanks to recent efforts from groups like Attendance Works, Boost Attendance, America’s Promise and Everyone Graduates, we know that missing school for any reason can lead to chronic absenteeism and significantly hinder a student’s prospects for academic attainment. These organizations have done amazing work raising awareness around the issue of chronic absenteeism which goes beyond the myopic focus on truancy and daily attendance counts which often mask issues with chronic absenteeism.
But what can be done about illness? Perhaps flu season is an unavoidable reality for K-12 schools and we just have to accept that it’s going to take out a substantial portion of a student population for the better part of two weeks every year. In nearly every school and district we work with, we see a similar pattern with a significant spike in absenteeism due to illness. According to Families Fighting Flu, “Every year in the U.S., children miss more than 38 million days of school due to the flu.” Kinda makes me think that instead of a summer break, we might as well take six weeks off at the start of each new year to keep vigil over our children and try out new veggie soup recipes.
Short of completely upending the traditional school calendar (an idea with merit BTW) there’s a lot schools can do to reduce absenteeism due to illness:
Awareness Campaign - Make staying healthy a school and community-wide priority with an aggressive awareness campaign. Families Fighting Flu has everything you need with their “Stay in the Game” campaign toolkit. They’ve also teamed up with Voices for Vaccines and Nurses Who Vaccinate to create the “Kick the Flu Out Of School” toolkit. Given historical trends in data, early January appears to be the best time to kick off this type of campaign.
Track School and District Illness Data - Schools should be tracking illness by using attendance codes that differentiate between doctor appointments, hospitalization and illness. Administrators should set a goal to beat last year’s illness absentee rate and share data within the school community. LearnSprout can makes this easy with our free data visualization tool.
Upgrade Air Circulation and Filtration Systems - This past June the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published results from a comprehensive study which showed that if California schools upgraded their HVAC systems to meet the state’s minimum requirements “…they would reduce illness absence by 3.4 percent and increase overall State funding to schools by $33 million.”
Open Windows or Classroom Doors - As weather permits, this is something we can do immediately to increase air circulation and reduce the spread of airborne germs.
Wash Your Hands! - Mother knows best of course. You’ve got to scrub ‘em good before you crunch your lunch! Make sure students have enough time to wash before lunch and when returning after recess. Take time to teach healthy habits, including how to properly sneeze or cough.
Use Hand Sanitizers - A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control way back in 2000 found that the use of hand sanitizers in classrooms can reduce absenteeism due to infectious illness by almost 20%. Caveat: The sanitizer must be at least 60% alcohol-based, so read labels carefully, ask parents to help stock up and strategically place a bottles throughout each classroom.
Host Onsite Flu Vaccinations - According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The single best way to protect against seasonal flu and its potential severe complications is for children to get a seasonal influenza vaccine each year.” The CDC provides planning materials and templates as well as extensive resources to help school planners prepare for School-located Vaccination (SLV).
Stay Home If Sick - Of course, if a child does become sick, the best way to avoid the spread of illness is to keep the child at home. Schools should review attendance policies to make sure they are supportive of families with sick children. In fact, the CDC goes so far as to recommend that schools avoid the use of perfect attendance awards.
So while illness might be an unavoidable fact of life for increasingly crowded classrooms, there is a lot we can do to lessen the impact and keep more kids in school. It all starts with a determined mindset of educators to raise a call to action, get kids immunized and fight the spread of cooties within our schools. Here at LearnSprout HQ, we will be watching the coming flu season closely and posting updates on our Twitter and Facebook feeds. I am hopeful that with more awareness and activism, we can make a lasting change that helps keep our kids healthy and in the classroom.
Introducing LearnSprout 1.1!
It’s only been four months since we first launched LearnSprout and we now have nearly 2,000 schools using our free reporting tool to analyze attendance patterns and spot at-risk students. Since launch, the team has been busy at work building new features and optimizing performance and today we’re excited to announce version 1.1 of LearnSprout.
The first thing you might notice when you log into LearnSprout is that reports load extremely fast. Most ad-hoc reports using data from the current school year are nearly instant. In a stress test that included twenty schools, LearnSprout was able to report six and a half years worth of data - more than two million attendance events - in just over 90 seconds.
On the back-end, we’ve improved nightly data syncs which now run at a fraction of the time compared to version 1.0. Our specialized integration method does not put any load on your SIS server nor does it interfere with nightly processes. This opens the door to school districts with enrollments up to 100,000 students who can now use LearnSprout to generate instant analytics on their entire student population.
Student List Improvements
When you run a report for the current school year, a list of students with attendance events matching your search criteria appears at the bottom of the page. This list is now sorted by the number of attendance events from most to least. This allows you to quickly spot chronically absent students.
One popular request was the ability to view additional detail for each student in the list. With 1.1, when you click on a student an expanded view displays summary totals by event type and date along with a complete listing of all attendance events.
Improved Account Management
Creating accounts for school principals, counselors, secretaries and other administrators can multiply the benefits of LearnSprout across a district, but folks have told us that the process felt a bit cumbersome and several issues were identified. So here’s what we did:
- We did away with the username requirement. Going forward, new users will create accounts with their email address. You can still sign in with an existing username though.
- We’ve ditched email verification and now take new users directly to the “Last 7 Days” report after they’ve created their account.
- Behind the scenes, we’ve implemented several new security features to further protectuser and school data.
- Cleaned up the look and feel and simplified the sign-in/sign-up process with a unified page. We’ve also added a link in case you forgot your password which wasn’t easy to find before.
- Lots bug fixes!
Now it’s super-easy for master account owners to create accounts and define permissions for all users within a district.
We received a ton of feedback from customers on how we can improve the look and feel of LearnSprout. The new design greatly simplifies the experience making it easier to navigate and run reports. There are more improvements than we can list here, but the effect is clear. Playing with your data should be fun, not confusing!
More to Come!
We’re pretty excited about the release of 1.1 and are loving the early feedback we’re hearing from customers who are geeking out on their own data… But while we’d like to pat ourselves on the back, we’re completely preoccupied with adding the new College Readiness report and are still on track to ship sometime in the coming months. We’re also working hard at adding support for additional student information systems. Since we first announced LearnSprout late last year, we’ve had requests to connect with 70 different types of student information systems! (You can see the complete list on our sign-up page.) And of course, there is no shortage of great ideas for LearnSprout. One of the best parts about working with customers is watching their eyes light up when they see their data for the first time and then listening to all the feature requests that follow. As it stands today, we’ve got more ideas than we can handle, but this is a good problem to have!
Happy data mining!
The Challenge With Tracking Chronic Absenteeism
With the start of the school year there has been a new push to draw attention to the issue of chronic absenteeism. Organizations such as Attendance Works, Boost Attendance, Everyone Graduates and America’s Promise Alliance have been doing excellent work to raise awareness and to help educators understand how to identify and fight chronic absenteeism.
Thanks to the work of these groups we now know that we need to move past our traditional focus on truancy and attend to the systemic issues surrounding absenteeism. Research shows that when students miss 10% or more of school for any reason, they are at risk and that students in the early grades are more likely to run into problems in subsequent years once they become chronically absent.
The first step of course in dealing with chronic absenteeism is to identify the problem and determine which students are at, or trending toward that 10% mark. Most educators have the ability to run reports and pull attendance data from their student information system, but once that raw data lands in their lap they’re faced with the challenge of transforming that data into useful information.
At the elementary level where attendance is typically taken once daily it is relatively easy to figure out what percentage of school has been missed for each student. But when dealing with middle and high school attendance things become exceeding complex. For example, a student with six periods each day misses fifth and sixth period for a week. In most states, that student would be counted as ‘Present’ for each day, yet the student has missed 30% of instruction time. In California, a student need only be present for a single period to be counted as ‘Present’ for the day.
In order to spot students with chronic absenteeism in middle and high school, we’re going to have to base our calculation on period attendance.
This is a real challenge for most school districts. Because the number of attendance events for each day is multiplied by the number of periods, the number of records in a typical attendance data export is often beyond what an Excel spreadsheet can handle after just a few months of school.
Some districts have data specialists with the tools and experience to deal with these large data sets, but even in the best circumstances it’s exceedingly difficult to determine the potential number of class meetings for each student. Some classes meet every day, while others meet every other day. Some meet only a single day per week. Some students may have courses scheduled for six periods while others may have five or seven. There are differing bell schedules and term lengths, holidays, school activities, snow days and other variables that make it nearly impossible to determine the actual number of class meetings for each student for a given date range.
To be honest, there are no perfect solutions. In an ideal world, student information systems would have this type of report built in so that teachers and administrators could easily view the percentage of school missed for each student, but the companies that build these systems face the same problems with calculation. Student information systems are increasingly constrained by a myriad of processes and reports that limit their ability to add processor-intensive functions and this one would be a doozy.
I wish I could say at this point that LearnSprout has the answer. We can do a lot and what we’ve built is worthy of a humblebrag, but calculating a percentage of school missed for middle and high school students remains for the time being, just out of our reach. That being said, here’s what we can do: Using LearnSprout administrators can list students by the total number of absences they’ve earned for all attendance codes that mean ‘Absent’. We can do this at a school, a group of schools or across a district. From there, it’s up to administrators to figure out where to draw the line for chronic absences.
It’s not perfect, but it’s close. Most importantly, it’s timely, fast and easy… Something any school administrator can do without a bunch of training. Our goal was to inspire ordinary folks to geek-out on their own data and decentralize critical reporting. Since we launched LearnSprout just a few months ago we’ve had nearly 1,500 schools hop onboard. So far, so good, but there’s still a ton of work to do.
Of course, this is just the first step. Technology can only go so far and can’t always explain why a student is missing school. The causes behind absenteeism are typically complex, requiring a nuanced and sensitive approach to intervention. At the end of the day it’s the educator on the front lines who will move the needle, but before the “Why?” comes the “Who?”… And that’s where we can help.
LearnSprout Dashboard v. 1.0 - Now Available!
We’re pretty excited over here at LearnSprout HQ.
After months of research, development, customer feedback, optimization, tweaking and re-tweaking, LearnSprout Dashboard is finally live!!!
For those of you who haven’t heard already, LearnSprout Dashboard is a free analytics tool that plugs into your student information system and converts all that historical data into simple charts and graphs. That’s it. It may not sound like much, but consider for a moment that the average student information system holds anywhere from four to ten years worth of data, the vast majority of which is referenced once for state-reporting then forgotten forever!
We wanted to inspire ordinary folks to geek-out on all that data, so we designed Dashboard in a way that an average principal or superintendent with no technical background could get setup in a few minutes and start poking around. We love services like Mint.com and Google Analytics and were inspired by their simplified workflow and no-frills approach to design, so we did our best to come up with something that anyone could use without requiring any training whatsoever.
With this first version we wanted to do one thing, and do it well. So we chose to focus on the most universal measure of student engagement: Attendance. LearnSprout Dashboard pulls in virtually all your attendance data, and translates it into easy-to-read charts and graphs. At a glance, you’ll be able to see trends and spot anomalies. The next version of Dashboard will include the ability to perform similar analysis on all historical grades.
When you first log in, we show you the last seven days of attendance events. Each bar in the graph represents a different day and is divided into segments representing each attendance code. Simple search filters allow you to run a new report, searching by:
- Date Range
- Attendance Code
- Lunch Status
With each filter option, you can choose all, some, or one value(s). For example, you to select a subset of attendance codes that mean ‘absent’ for just your elementary schools for all of last year. Or you could select all codes that mean ‘tardy’ for all of your high schools, for all seniors for the last ten years.
Once Dashboard grabs the data, it displays the results in a bar graph and then segments the resulting attendance data by grade level, gender, lunch status, race/ethnicity, attendance code and period. This way you can see the percentages and makeup of your attendance events. Slicing and dicing… It’s what we do!
Another thing we should mention is that LearnSprout Dashboard is wicked fast. We ran a stress-test that included all attendance events for all students in a large school district of 37 schools. The resulting report resulted in nearly four-million attendance events, but it took only a few minutes to generate.
Naturally, we’re seeing incredible demand for Dashboard. Seems that a lot of folks are curious to see what their data looks like and are eager to take Dashboard for a spin. Because of this, we’re starting with a phased roll-out, on-boarding districts in batches based on the order that they registered. We hope to have most districts live on Dashboard in the coming weeks. To reserve your spot, visit our signup page at https://www.learnsprout.com/school_signup.
More to come!!