Connect the Dots: How Michigan, Arizona and Portland Make Data Work...

Big Data

Connect the Dots: How Michigan, Arizona and Portland Make Data Work Together

By Troy Wheeler     Oct 18, 2016

Connect the Dots: How Michigan, Arizona and Portland Make Data Work Together

This article is part of the guide: The Data Workout: How It’s Impacting Teaching and Learning.

How can we—as committed leaders and stakeholders in education—support and equip educators with tools that will ultimately improve student learning? That’s the question I asked myself recently after reading a thought-provoking article by Adam Rosenzweig, titled The Folly of Big Ideas. In the piece, he challenged the common belief that big, sexy ideas are always best. Instead, he suggested that sometimes the simplest ideas can be the most effective.

Which brings me back to my initial question. Data is one answer. The proliferation of new tools and systems to support great teaching is another. But how do we strip that down into something even simpler? Something more impactful that can stand the test of time? I believe we do so by starting with a simple concept: Connect the dots to create a more accurate picture of student learning and achievement. Find a way for all the innovative and promising new tools—both instructional and administrative—to work together with established data systems, making them holistically stronger for educators and education stakeholders alike.

It boils down to really making the data work better and work together. And it can be done. We call that interoperability, or a data standard to stitch together disparate systems. It’s not the flashiest idea, or even a new idea, but it can be hugely impactful. It’s an approach that’s been embraced by other industries as well, such as healthcare. When data is shared across labs, hospitals and pharmacies, it provides a better, more seamless experience for patients. In ed-tech, when data is more effectively leveraged, we can boost both student achievement and teacher satisfaction.

While extremely important as well as effective, data integration is not something that can be achieved overnight, or that we can do alone. That’s where our diverse community of education and technology leaders from across the country comes in. I’d like to share a few of their stories and the results they’ve seen implementing data standards that achieve interoperability.


The goal of the Michigan Data Hub project is to provide the state with a cost-effective, efficient way to generate high-quality and timely data. A data standard establishes a common language and defines how all the various data sources will work together; the state can then add or remove vendors in its ecosystem in a matter of hours or days—not the traditional weeks or months—with little cost and maximum flexibility. When fully implemented, the envisioned system will provide Michigan educators, parents, schools, and districts with data that will help students succeed. It’s exciting to see a system that will arm teachers with real-time information about their students’ attendance, behavior and academic achievement, enabling them to see a complete picture and make changes on the spot.


Last year, the state of Arizona launched the Arizona Education Data Standards (AzEDS), its new education data system that will save schools and districts time and money by reducing errors and improving efficiency through streamlined data management. AzEDS is designed to greatly simplify reporting on the back-end, while also improving data accuracy. This lets teachers and administrators focus their time on insights the data offers about students’ specific needs, and create relevant planning strategies. In total, the system is expected to save schools and districts up to $57 million a year.

Portland, Oregon

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a vast array of educational tools available to teachers, with new tools from various vendors hitting the market what seems like daily. To address this influx and still allow teachers to choose the best tools and apps for their individual needs, the Portland school system sought a better way to ensure applications would work well together. The answer was to create a foundation—what we technical folks call an enterprise education architecture. The ecosystem Portland has put in place affords teachers the speed and flexibility they need when embracing new classroom and instructional tools. When teachers identify tools they want to try, they can test them out asap. The district, meanwhile, avoids a lengthy and cumbersome cycle of pilot programs, stakeholder meetings and vendor negotiations.

Bold, new ideas that solve pain points over a short time period are always exciting to explore. However, sometimes it’s the simple, long-term approach that can have the biggest effect. Our main goal at the Ed-Fi Alliance is to improve student achievement and teacher satisfaction by putting data into the hands of educators; we are continually working to identify the best way to do this. An open data standard gives districts local oversight and control that is so important for security and peace of mind. And it fuels the application of education technology that is coming down the road.

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