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Why Spreadsheets Just Aren’t the Right Tool for Reporting Your Record Sets

Michael Nutter

December 7, 2017

Public school districts have made considerable progress in adopting digital technology to augment the learning process, but their continued use of spreadsheets for critical data management functions simply isn’t sustainable.

Research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that, as of the 2015-2016 school year, at least 25 states were providing less per-student “formula” funding (the primary form of state funding for schools) than they were in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession. With less and less funding available, operational efficiency has become absolutely critical for public schools all across the United States.

This desire to mitigate overhead might partially explain why so many schools use Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheet software programs to track important data — but in most cases, it’s actually hurting districts more than it’s helping. Platforms like Excel are incredibly well-suited for certain processes — both in education and in the broader business world — but as a default data management tool, they leave a lot to be desired.

Here are just a handful of the many reasons why spreadsheets are a less than ideal choice for school districts hoping to optimize their data reporting processes.

1. It’s tough to find key insights in overwhelming volumes of raw data.

More data leads to better insights, but only when stakeholders are able to make sense of their data at some rudimentary level. The problem with spreadsheets is that they do very little to help users differentiate valuable data points from the “noise.” By laying all of a school district’s data out on the table without structuring it in an intuitive way, spreadsheets tend to overwhelm anyone who is not a trained data analyst. If a teacher or district administrator can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak, their carefully tracked data is essentially useless.

2. Historical data is incredibly difficult to track.

From chronic absences to IEPs to English language proficiency among LEP students, longitudinal tracking accounts for many of the most important data operations educators perform. Unfortunately, spreadsheets often aren’t designed to keep track of — much less collate and compare — historical data. What’s more, most spreadsheet tools have limited data visualization capabilities. That means that even if district stakeholders put in the extra effort it takes to track data over time, the charts and graphs they generate often represent a distorted picture of the district’s progress, especially to the untrained eye.

3. They make productive collaboration highly unlikely.

Though the rise of cloud computing has mitigated the problem to an extent, spreadsheets are still plagued by major shareability issues. Part of this stems from the simple fact that many people really don’t like spreadsheets! Especially among people without extensive experience using them, tools like Excel inspire everything from disdain to confusion to outright fear. If teachers and administrators immediately “check out” whenever they’re asked to contribute to a spreadsheet, it’s practically impossible to facilitate productive collaboration.

Even if educators are able to overcome their hang-ups and buy into spreadsheets, obstacles to collaboration still remain. Most obviously, the fact that spreadsheets are rarely “live” means that version confusion is all too common, and administrators often have a hard time knowing which particular .xlsx file represents the most up-to-date information a district has.

A Better Alternative to Spreadsheets

Ultimately, spreadsheets are just too sprawling to serve as an effective data management tool in the educational sector. Full funding for schools depends first and foremost on accurate, well-organized EMIS data, and attempting to house and manage this information in a spreadsheet represents a substantial risk to any district’s funding.

Instead, districts should consider a data validation platform like Vinson’s CheckPoint tool that makes it easy to organize, analyze, and verify critical EMIS data. CheckPoint enables Superintendents and Treasurers to examine which record sets have been verified by whom and at what time.

Accountability for data reporting operations should be shared across an entire district, and a platform like CheckPoint guarantees that every stakeholder in the educational process is able to contribute in a substantive way — and be held responsible for doing so. This kind of recordkeeping simply isn’t possible with spreadsheets alone.

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