Schoolzilla Acquires Decision Science Labs to Help Districts Make...

Mergers and Acquisitions

Schoolzilla Acquires Decision Science Labs to Help Districts Make Smarter Spending Choices

By Tony Wan     Oct 5, 2016

Schoolzilla Acquires Decision Science Labs to Help Districts Make Smarter Spending Choices

Schoolzilla is not a monster. But it boasts a voracious appetite when it comes to ingesting education data and, now, another company.

The Oakland, Calif.-based startup, which offers data warehousing and visualization tools for schools and districts, has acquired Decision Science Labs. Financial terms were not disclosed. Schoolzilla will have 57 full-time staff after the deal.

Decision Science Labs, a small outfit based in Washington, D.C., helps district leaders track how their schools are spending money and how those dollars impact student outcomes. The company has raised $1 million in venture funding since launching in June 2014.

The acquisition will bring “in-house expertise to help districts link financial data to student achievement,” Schoolzilla CEO Lynzi Ziegenhagen tells EdSurge in an interview, “and spur school leaders to think about how to spend in ways that lead to more productive, positive change.”

Founded in 2009, Schoolzilla began as an internal project of Aspire Public Schools, a charter management network in Oakland, to help educators draw actionable insights from the gargantuan bytes of data available from different technology providers. Its tool, called Mosaic, centralizes information from different sources (including student records, state assessments and behavior management tools) and displays them in colorful dashboards that flag where district leaders might need to pay attention.

In 2013, Schoolzilla spun off as an independent company, and currently serves over 100 school systems across more than 25 states. The company has raised $10 million in funding from investors that include Kapor Capital and Reach Capital.

By adding school financial data to the platform, the company aims to help school administrators better understand the connection between spending and academic outcomes. The goal, according to Ziegenhagen, is to help district officials ask tough questions, and make smarter choices about where to put their money.

Schoolzilla is also partnering with Afton Partners, a financial consulting firm that works with public schools, to offer services that help district clients leverage insights from Schoolzilla’s data platform to inform decision-making.

“Data tells you where to look, but it doesn’t tell you why,” she adds. “We want to catalyze conversations and get people to add insights and context to spending data patterns.” Questions she believes Schoolzilla’s tool can raise include: Which schools are spending less than their peers but getting better results? Which ones are getting more than their fair share of district funds but producing below-average outcomes?

Adding the ability to collect and visualize financial data “has always been in our product roadmap,” Ziegenhagen says, “ever since the fallout of the financial crisis [from 2007-2009] and [Aspire] school leaders needed better information about budgeting.”

Alameda Unified School District in California will be among the first Schoolzilla customers to bring financial data onto the platform. The system will be available to existing customers over the course of this school year.

Compliance Considerations

There’s also a timely push factor behind Schoolzilla’s expansion, according to Ziegenhagen, thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act. Signed into law last December, the federal legislation will require every district to report actual spending at each school. This marks a significant departure from current rules that require school officials to only report average spending at a district level.

As statisticians often warn, mean averages can mask outliers that offer actionable insights—or alarm bells. Staff salaries account for roughly 80 percent of district spending, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet researchers have found that teacher pay can vary wildly across schools within the same district. A 2012 analysis of California’s largest school districts, conducted by The Education Trust-West, revealed that average teacher salaries across different schools in the same district can differ by nearly $7,000.

The contrast is starker in Seattle School District, where Marguerite Roza, who heads the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, has found that average teacher salaries can range from roughly $60,000 to nearly $79,000—a 32 percent difference.

The wage difference may be attributed to job experience but, as Roza points out to EdSurge, “experienced teachers aren’t evenly distributed across districts. We find that senior teachers tend to be in wealthier schools.” Her team is sharing its school finance research to help Schoolzilla fine-tune its product.

Particularly worrisome are cases where teachers with more experience—and higher salaries—concentrate in affluent neighborhoods. These concerns have prompted the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate racial disparities in student and teacher funding, along with suspension rates and other issues, the results of which the office shared earlier this year (PDF).

Discrepancies in school spending may also be explained by other factors, such as the number of students who are English Language Learners or have special needs. “Yet often these questions are never asked because they’re buried in the data,” Roza says. “We need more granular data to start benchmarking where these dollars are going and what we’re getting in return.”

Schoolzilla is among a handful of companies that provide district leaders with financial data analysis and planning services. Allovue, based in Baltimore, also aims to help educators see how dollars are outcomes are aligned. (It lays claim to pioneering the “edfintech” industry.) BrightBytes, based in San Francisco, says it helps districts see how technology spending impact student learning.

Disclosure: Reach Capital is also an investor in EdSurge

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