Data-Driven Districts Experience Growing Pains (Updated)

"You know," I shared with a colleague in Texas, "we're looking for a 'Systems Interface Specialist,' which is another term for someone with database administrator (DBA) skills but whose salary won't rival the superintendent's!" We'd both lamented earlier at the high cost of database administrators, who enjoy salaries in excess of $90,000.
"I have a story to tell you," responded my friend, a CTO in a larger school district. "I spent much of the year articulating the why this position was necessary to the superintendent. When the position was finally posted, we interviewed and hired a person for the DBA position."
"What does your position pay?" I wondered aloud. Maybe I wasn't recruiting in the right place. He held up his hand, indicating he had more to say.
"You won't believe this. When I offered the candidate the position, he demanded a $10K increase to the $85,000 annual salary. So, I went back to the superintendent and justified the pay increase. That was in September."
He paused before continuing. "At the end of December, he came back and said to me, 'I've been offered six figures to do the same thing I'm doing for you.' And he was gone."
In my own experience in a large school district, there was a "Data Warehouse" team composed of a Director who, according to him, worked 14 hours a day, as well as 3 data warehouse specialists. The 3 specialist positions were revolving doors, as each of those was hired by companies like Rackspace.com, a well-known San Antonio-based Internet Service Provider, and server host. The funny reports that would come back from these individuals included higher pay and the ability to wear slippers at work.


True or not, one fact is incontrovertible--school districts need access to a bewildering array of just-in-time data collection, analysis, aggregation/disaggregation tools that intersect along a multitude of points (e.g. student demographics, teacher quality, end of course). Worse, it's not enough to just house the data from your student information system and be able to query it. You also have to be able to generate a variety of data files.

Here's one diagram for a "data dashboard" to a data warehouse in one school district...it was my first attempt to try to explain to others how data needed to interact with each other.

As pointed out in this job announcement for Systems Interface Specialist, the primary task involves having in-house district staff to accomplish the following:
The Systems Interface Specialist will be responsible for working with a variety of technology systems, specializing in database interfaces between student or business information systems and third party vendors. 
Doug Johnson elaborates on this expectation in The Evolving Role of the Student Information Manager:
The traditional role of the Student Information System manager is therefore changing as well. No longer the keeper or a single, complex database that handles demographics, scheduling, grading, health, discipline, class rank, etc., the SIS manager now must also facilitate the transfer of accurate data among systems.
Source: DecisionEd Demo (over 600+ reports available)
SHARING INFORMATION TO JUSTIFY A NEW POSITION
To help justify the new type of position needed, and the subsequent need for an internal data warehouse, the following scenarios were solicited from teachers and campus instructional specialists. I also video-recorded a few of them explaining the challenges...quite powerful testimony to get the message across. Still, for smaller districts, these costs can be...well...prohibitive.

In Texas, several school districts shared the solutions they were using:

The prices range from relatively inexpensive to astronomical...of course, depending on your district's need, there are tons of reports. For example, DecisionEd (approximately $200K+) is a self-hosted solution with annual maintenance costs that offers a plethora of relevant reports. I remember being truly amazed at the scope of those.


Whatever the needs, it's obvious to me that state education agencies and regional education service centers need to step up their exemplary services to meet the exploding needs of local education agencies.

For example, if your student information system is hosted by an education service center, you may to setup a local "mirror" of the district data stored at that ESC. This enables your district staff to query the data locally without constantly requesting ESC staff (at a cost) to generate requisite data files.

Here is one possible diagram describing the process:


Although some solutions--like Clever--are working to bridge the gap, it can be difficult for school districts. Consider the following points:
Another challenge facing innovators in educational data is the difficulty of accessing and standardizing data stored in legacy student information systems (SIS). Startups including San Francisco-based LearnSprout and Clever have made some inroads in this area, with offerings that synchronize SIS data across multiple educational technology platforms and save developers the messy work of implementing cross-system compatibility. 
Breaking down SIS barriers that are imposed on developers will also encourage the deployment of more advanced data science initiatives that use educational data. In addition, specific policy interventions can encourage participation and use. (Read more)
Clever's explanation includes the following:
Clever securely connects with your SIS and synchronizes rosters for you automatically. Clever offers both “pull” (credentials-based) and “push” (SFTP) syncing, and takes just five minutes to set up.
Unfortunately, Clever doesn't support TexasSuccess.org--composed of Istation and Think Through Math intervention and diagnostic tools many districts in Texas use--not to mention several other issues. As a result, the position of DBA or "systems interface specialist" has to exist to manage the data file creation/generation requests and synching them up to vendors.

Finally, what should the process look like? Since no ravings of a madman could be complete without a hand-sketched drawing, I'm including one:



By the way, some desired features in a Data Warehouse include the following:

  1. Local district-hosted, turn-key solution that interface with internal and external data sources
  2. Has a perpetual license for server administration, report development, query development, dashboard development, and end user access for District Staff and School administrators (non-classroom staff).
  3. Robust, secure reporting features customized for Texas school districts that allow for
  4. Excel, PDF, HTML export capabilities (and the ability to turn those on/off as needed)
  5. The ability to structure results that include information such as student assessments, student attendance,student marks and GPA, student interventions, student program participation, student enrollment and behavior, transcripts, special education.
  6. Role-based dashboards with drag-n-drop functionality for customization
  7. Custom tools that work with existing vendors (e.g. Eduphoria)
  8. Professional Learning Opportunities for district, campus staff, and high-end training for data experts (e.g. Curriculum staff).


What would you add?

Sample Job Description


Systems Interface Specialist


The position for Systems Interface Specialist will be available in the SCHOOL DISTRICT.  Employees of the District may apply in writing to the Human Resources Office.  Others who are interested in this position may apply online at districtwebsite.edu and then contact the Human Resources Office at PHONE NUMBER to express interest.   The position will remain posted it is filled.


Primary Purpose:   The Systems Interface Specialist will be responsible for working with a variety of technology systems, specializing in database interfaces between student or business information systems and third party vendors.


DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
  1. Support the interface of  cloud based hosted applications, single sign-on technologies, curriculum and software vendors systems.
  2. Support Student Information System (e.g. iTCCS) and data management systems, including the ECISD mirror copy of ITCCS data.
  3. Actively learn and apply knowledge of SQL, MySQL, VBScript, Windows Batch Scripting, etc.
  4. Create and maintain project plans that identify expectations, deliverables, tasks, milestone dates, status, and resource allocation.
  5. Apply appropriate project management techniques to minimize risk and ensure the success of all projects.
  6. Establish and maintain regular written and in-person communication.
  7. Develop and maintain technical documentation related to assigned functions and responsibilities.
  8. Ensure that an exceptional level of customer service is provided.
  9. Complete post-project evaluations to determine how results were achieved.
  10. Understand and apply client/server applications architecture and management.
  11. Understand and offer input on growing the District’s network and server architecture.
  12. Display strong communication and organizational skills.
  13. Facilitate complex, cross-functional projects to successful completion with multiple departments and vendor partners.
  14. Produce high quality work in a dynamic environment.
  15. Exhibit efficient communication to stakeholders with excellent written and verbal communication skills.
  16. Display the ability to work under pressure and remain calm in the midst of changing circumstances.
  17. Exhibit the ability to rapidly adapt and respond to changes in the environment and priorities.


Note: Not all applicants will be interviewed. Each applicant’s resume, application, and other available information will be considered in the screening process. Only those persons currently meeting all of the minimum requirements will be screened.


Minimum Qualifications:
  1. Bachelor’s degree (preferred)
  2. Experience developing, implementing, and refining systems, processes, and/or protocols
  3. Ability to identify an issue, structure and implement a problem-solving approach
  4. Ability to engage and inspire a wide range of audiences
  5. Experience developing Gantt charts and using other common project management techniques/tools


EQUIPMENT USED:  Computer, printer, digital cameras, video equipment, scanners, service tools, software programs.

PERIOD OF EMPLOYMENT:  226 days SALARY:  

Part A: Systems Interface Specialist - Assessment
Directions: You may use an internet-connected computer to identify the appropriate solution.
You will have approximately 15-20 minutes to complete this assessment.

  1. Given 3 fields--firstname, lastname, student ID--what formula/function would you use in a spreadsheet to generate a field with the following attributes (sample data included):
    1. First 6 of first name - Jon
    2. First 4 of last name - Gault
    3. Last 3 of student ID# - 0234567
    4. username - jongaul567
    5. email - jongaul567@ecisdst.net

Write the formula in the space provided below:


  1. Given a table name of students, write a SQL query to return all data elements (that include firstname, lastname, email, studentid, address1, city, state, zip) where the firstname is “Mary” and sorted by lastname field in descending order. Also include a column in the results with header of “Full Name”. Resulting data should look like this:
FirstName
LastName
Full Name
Email
StudentID
Jon
Gault
Jon Gault
jongaul567@ecisdst.net
0234567
Jennifer
Salas
Jennifer Salas
jennifsala321@ecisdst.net
0834321


Write the SQL query in the space provided below:



Part B: Interview Form for Systems Interface Specialist Position
  1. Briefly highlight your previous job experiences, particularly those that helped prepare you for this position.



  2. Where do you see yourself professionally in 5 years?



  3. Name 3 characteristics you possess that make you well suited for this position.



  4. If assigned a problem to solve and provided little supervision, how would you proceed?



  5. Please share something related to technology that you learned recently and how you learned it.
  6. This job requires working with others well on tight deadlines.  Could you share a specific example of how you have successfully done this in the past?


  1. Please describe in detail your experiences with Filemaker Pro and/or Microsoft Access.



  2. What steps would you take to secure an FTP transfer of confidential data from a district server to a vendor partner?


  3. What has your experience been with setting up and interacting with SQL servers?


  4. What are some of your go-to tools for MySQL and/or MS SQL queries and interactions?


  5. Please share your experiences working--especially data extraction and data  file creation--with a Student Information System (like iTCCS, Skyward, etc.).



  6. In this position, you are expected to deal with confidential student and staff data. Will you be able to maintain confidentiality of this data?



  7. When you had more work than could be completed in the time allotted, what did you do?



  8. How have you demonstrated initiative in sharing what you are doing at work with your supervisor and others?




  9. What else would you like to share with us that perhaps we haven’t thought to ask?




  10. What questions do you have for us?




Systems Interface Specialist - Learning Path (226 days)


NOTE: Levels begin at 1 (lowest) and go to level 3 (highest). Each level presumes 1 year of growth before end of level tasks can be achieved. Checkpoints will be set every 3 months to measure progress and forward movement. The Specialist will remain at their “Level” until they achieve Training & Certification options.

Level & Timeline
End of Level Expectations...
End of Level Tasks...
Training & Certification(s)
1


Timeline:
Year 1
Introductory
  1. File Transfer Protocol (FTP)
  2. File/Folder Encryption
  3. MySQL Queries
  4. Active Directory
  5. MySQL database
  6. MS Excel
  7. MS Access
Intermediate
  1. MS Excel (spreadsheet)
  2. MS Access (database)
  3. ITCCS Data File Extracts
Advanced
  1. MS Access Queries and Reports to iTCCS
  1. Facilitate Account Management
  2. Create data files as needed
  3. Interface with vendor partners and district groups
  4. Chart projects
  5. Interface with ESC-20 Staff/Student contacts and Programmers
  6. Work in collaboration with Network Engineer and Technology Operations Manager to achieve desired server environment
Training
File Encryption (F2F)
ITCCS (F2F)
Active Directory (F2F)

Certification

Intermediate Level:
MS Access MOS Cert.
MS Excel MOS Cert

Successful completion of Training as determined by supervisor





2


Timeline:
Year 2
Introductory
  1. MySQL Tools (e.g. Navicat)
  2. SQL Database Backup and Restoration
  3. PHP Web pages to MySQL
  4. Microsoft SQL
  5. PowerShell (for scripting)
Intermediate
  1. Microsoft SQL
  2. PowerShell + SFTP
Advanced
Level 1 as well as the following:

  • Scripted Secure FTP transfers
  • Craft SQL queries to obtain data file exports
  • Maintain databases including backups
  • Work with Mirror copy of iTCCS data
Training
Intermediate MySQL (Online, free)
PowerShell Training (Online, free)
Active Directory (Online, free)

Certification
3


Timeline:
Year 3
Introductory
  1. Program, Automate functions and Scripting with Visual Basic or equivalent programming language
Intermediate
  1. Visual Basic
  2. Database-backed, PHP Web Site design
Advanced
  1. Continuous learning as needed
Levels 1 & 2 as well as:
  • Programming of automated scripts
  • Automated SFTP Server management for data file transfers, backups
  • PHP-MySQL
Training
Online, independent study

Certification
Not needed

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


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