Using Data to Transform Somerville Public Schools

Imagine you were given the opportunity to transform your school system with new technology. That’s exactly what happened to Uri Harel, Curriculum Coordinator for K-8 education at Somerville Public Schools, in 2015. The City of Somerville had just acquired a year-long brigade of Code for America (CfA) Fellows, and came to Uri asking how they could help.

“I immediately knew what problem I wanted to solve,” Harel told us.

Together with Somerville Public Schools, the CfA brigade spent several months talking about the issue of how to best integrate all of its data sources and more effectively use data to improve the student experience.

The group started making prototypes based around the student data scattered across different systems — a notorious problem in education. Tardiness, special education, testing, grades, and participation were all sorted into different databases.

“What we had was a problem where info doesn’t get shared well,” explains Harel. “We liken it to a medical handoff where shifts change and medical info on a patient doesn’t get shared well. We saw that happening every September when a student gets a new teacher.”

The CfA team created a system that would nightly link all the databases so everyone could see all the data compiled on each student. At the end of their 6-month contract, they had a system working, and Harel’s team used the budget they had to continue to expand the project, adding new layers and technologies.

In the spring, Microsoft sent some of our civic tech fellows to work on this project. There, they showed the Somerville Public Schools team how to use Power BI to create visualizations with the data available on their systems. Fellow Aaron Myran worked on creating a one-page snapshot, where at any point on a dashboard, principals and administrators could see what was happening in Somerville schools.

Most recently, our fellow Ihsaan Patel has taken this one step further by working on two separate modules to contribute to this system. The first focuses on how this combined database can be used to create more balanced and equitable class lists.

“In all schools, creating class lists is a process,” Harel says. “Often, you get classes that have an even number of boys and girls, but there’s always disparities in race, economic status, and sometimes bias toward ‘favorite teachers’ — and this helps create balanced classes and equity within the schools.”

Ihsaan’s Student Selector App, available on Azure, takes all the system’s data, anonymized, and shows users ratios in diversity, grades, participation, and more as you build a classroom — helping build a well-rounded, equitable environment for students.

Ihsaan’s second module focuses on student-specific services and interventions, such as afterschool clubs or tutoring, reading clubs, or summer programs. Harel admits that educators don’t always measure the effectiveness of interventions, and he wants to make that a priority in Somerville Public Schools.

“We have a data analyst, but it often takes time to do a full data analysis of a service. Most districts don’t even have a data analyst,” Harel mentions. ”The code takes any of these services and does a regression analysis to figure out the effectiveness, even down to the subgroup.”

And the best part? The whole project is open source and available for use by all — as it gets coded, any district can use it. School districts can take the code and house it on their own servers.

What’s next for Somerville Public Schools?

In the immediate short term, Harel wants to see Ihsaan’s work hard-coded into the program so it’s available, working, and smooth. Then, he plans to get this program expanded to the high school. In the fall, they plan to bring in two other urban districts to expand.

“We’ll have to hire more coders, maybe a project manager,” Harel explains. “We need someone to train people. Bringing in another district requires a lot of work: making sure the data is secure and people are using the data correctly, training teachers to use the program for good, and most importantly, training administrators to take this work, to look at a program they really like, and see that the data doesn’t support it. How do you use statistical analysis to review a program?”

Moving forward, Somerville Public Schools also wants to ensure this platform allows students to have a voice in what their teachers know about them. They plan on implementing a student module in the future, keeping questions in mind such as: What kind of metrics should students include in their portal? What is your learning style? What motivates you? What are some things your teachers should know about you early on?

As this project expands, Harel and his team also keep privacy on their priority list. They’re focusing on transparency (as all of the current data is available to the public), parent-teacher-student interplay, and overall security. As they build more layers to the project, they’ve had to slow down to double back and make sure this data is safeguarded.

“We want to make sure we’re doing this right,” says Harel.

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