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How School District Data Falls Through the Cracks — And Why It Matters

Michael Nutter

April 12, 2017

Many districts lack effective means for verifying and validating the data that states require them to report before they can qualify for and ultimately secure funding. The resulting inaccurate data can have both financial and legal consequences.

No business succeeds without securing its revenue streams with airtight practices. Many school districts, however, lack systems of accountability for their primary means of revenue: annual reporting data.

Despite the fact that this data directly informs the funding decisions of state departments of education, school districts all too commonly lack any processes that would verify its accuracy. Even worse, the administrators, teachers, and staff who report data to specialists are largely removed from the process — while their paychecks may depend on state funding, the relationship between the reporting process and that monthly check is distant at best. They have no incentive to understand how reporting systems and their procedures work, much less improve on them.

The result is that school funding often falls through the cracks, leaving schools with less money than they actually deserve. As detrimental as that may be, the other potential outcome is far worse: false reporting results in potentially serious legal consequences for district administrators.

In recent years, states have instituted uniform data standards and protocols like the Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) in an effort to improve accountability. But for these frameworks to be effective, incentives and processes must be created for the stakeholders at every step of the reporting process, from the hundreds of teachers collecting student data, to the treasurer who finally submits it. District must align the entirety of their own processes with those of the state if they want to receive every penny they’re owed.

A Problem of Process and Accountability

One of the biggest problems with data reporting is that responsibility usually rests with just one person: the district treasurer. If there are problems with the data after he hits “submit,” it is he alone who must face punishment from the state. It’s a top-down system of accountability, and unfortunately, it can be nearly impossible for those at the top to verify the data coming from the bottom of the hierarchy.

In states like Ohio, EMIS sets the guidelines and standards for data reporting, and uses its own software to collect data from school districts. But the thousands of stakeholders who report data at the building level (superintendents, HR, teachers, custodians, parents, etc.) may use whatever software makes that sense for the operational purposes of their job. So long as that data is later inputted into EMIS by data specialists, any and all software is fair game.

The problem is that these pieces of software are rarely interoperable with either each other or with EMIS, forcing specialists to input data manually and making it almost impossible to cross-check figures against building-level systems later on.

At the same time, there are no standardized processes in place to connect and coordinate this large mass of stakeholders, which also includes software and data processing vendors, as well as state representatives. In fact, many entities don’t know which data they’re responsible for or what software they should use. Without formal requirements to ensure that stakeholders adhere to rigorous systems of accountability, there is little pressure to check and double-check reports from individual entities, or to verify results against those of other groups.

Reviewing Systems and Retaining Revenue

Considering how disastrous it can be for school districts to lose much-needed revenue, administrators need to take steps to assess current systems and close the gaps. At the very least, this should include reviewing and documenting current systems, software, and processes that are involved in the EMIS reporting process (workflow tools like Visio may be of some assistance). It’s also a good idea to meet with stakeholders and collaborate to fix pain points and improve processes.

In the end, school districts should be able to clearly map out which entities are responsible for which data sets, ensuring that no data fields are left missing and that stakeholders are identifiable and accountable. The process may be long and involved, but receiving the funding that districts are due is well worth the effort on their part. After all, no business would stand for any uncertainties in their primary revenue stream — why should district be any different?

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