Atlanta Public Schools uses data to help students succeed
Testing a fresh approach
Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is one of the largest school districts in the state of Georgia, serving over 50,000 students across 87 schools. The district’s mission is direct and determined: “With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will be ready for college and career.”
But how do educators know if students are ready? Fears of “teaching to the test” have left many teachers and parents wary of relying on test results and other metrics. How does data translate into the practicalities of helping children learn? What if individual students get lost in the numbers?
Several years ago, the APS Data + Information Group set out to make data in education approachable and truly helpful. With funds from a grant focused on turning under-performing schools around, Executive Director Michael LaMont partnered with Slalom to get the program going.
Visualizing dropout risk, performance, and more
“It all started when we set up the team’s first Tableau Server,” recalls Ryan Crosby, a Slalom information management and analytics consultant. “They were using an old SQL server that nobody loved, and they were writing all the Tableau workbooks against copies of the production database. I spent about five months bringing the team up to speed on data warehousing, and we created a lot of good dashboards.”
The dashboards were unlike anything the district had produced before. Through Tableau data visualizations, data can be seen, explored, and understood in new ways. LaMont, who Crosby describes as “something of a data visionary,” led the charge to make information clear and useful to educators with no analytics training.
“We defined ‘helpful’ as the core of our approach. It means we break down data. We spell it out. We teach it and explain it. We make it visual, and we make it easy.”
Some of the initial dashboards presented relatively simple information, such as attendance rates and “take rates” of important tests. Others were more complex, like an early warning dashboard that predicts dropout rates for incoming freshmen in high-school by applying data models to their performance in key subjects, attendance, behavior, and other metrics.
In the first year, the team delivered dashboards to senior district leaders featuring high-level, high-priority data. Next, they zeroed in on school performance, creating deeper interactive dashboards for principals and instructional leaders. In year three, they provided the district’s 3,000 teachers with classroom-level data that quickly began to influence teaching plans and conversations about student needs. They also created a ground-breaking public website, apsinsights.org, that allows anyone to explore APS down to the school level.
Balancing velocity and security
As the program grew, inadequate infrastructure and automation became a significant challenge. The team repeatedly ran out of storage space or had trouble getting access to data sources in a timely fashion.
“They started looking at the cloud,” says Crosby. “They wanted flexibility on how they could scale, and they had a goal of pushing data out to parents and students, which would require integrating Tableau with the district’s confidential student information system.”
Slalom helped the team evaluate cloud options and select Amazon Web Services (AWS). We then worked together to architect and build an end-to-end data platform in AWS using Amazon Redshift and Matillion, a third-party tool that automates ETL (extract, transfer, load) jobs to connect data sources.
Security was and is a top priority, especially after a ransomware attack crippled the city of Atlanta. With granular controls in the AWS cloud, Slalom was able to help the team achieve compliance with a rigorous security management standard, ISO/IEC 27001, as well as Center for Internet Security (CIS) AWS Foundation Benchmark. “They’re actually more secure than they were in the on-premise environment,” says Crosby.
“In the AWS cloud, we’ve been able to achieve ISO/IEC 27001 compliance. Confidential data is more secure and data sources are fully automated, so we can focus our time on making data useful. Most exciting, we’ll soon be able to securely deliver student-level dashboards to both parents and the students themselves.”
Making an impact
“We can see from the backend that people are exploring and using these dashboards all across the school system and district,” says LaMont. “Teachers tell us the dashboards allow them to quickly gain a deeper understanding of their students. Previously they would have to piece together information across multiple disparate systems by themselves. Now all that information is at their fingertips in real time.”
One of the most popular dashboards was inspired by feedback from schools and partners. The Goal Setting Dashboard allows teachers, counselors, and students to review past performance together and collaboratively set both life goals and more immediate academic goals for the student. By bringing data from across the district into one place, stakeholders can come together to support students in an unprecedented way.
The team looks forward to delivering dashboards to parents in the upcoming school year. “It’s all pretty leading edge,” says Crosby. “There’s nothing else like it in Georgia. It’s raising the bar across the nation.”