On Target Feb 2019
Partnership Corner feb 2019
  • Toward a "Learner Positioning System": Interoperability and the Promise of Data in Service of Learning  


    Our several year partnership in theorizing, conceptualizing, and, at long last, operationalizing what we call a “learner positioning system” (LPS) has been one of the most exciting undertakings of our careers as educators. We find tremendous opportunity for administrators, teachers, parents, and students alike in the transformative potential of data interoperability, which, we argue, can be harnessed by school districts systemically to yield a comprehensive, multifaceted picture of student learning—and student learners—that is actionable at the district, school, classroom, and individual levels. Here we outline what we mean by “interoperability” and “data in service of learning,” as well as the process now underway in the Morris School District toward developing an LPS that leverages the entire school system to support each student in our care.


    Interoperability:  From Analytics to Action. Interoperability, the capacity to coordinate and synthesize different data systems into one coherent, accessible repository, offers a view of student performance both longitudinally and in real time. It lets us know at any given moment exactly where a student is in his or her learning trajectory (academically as well as socially and emotionally), what that trajectory looks like in the aggregate, whether and how a student is progressing, and what steps he or she needs to take to reach short- and long-term goals. We’ve named this concept of large-scale student data synthesis the “learner positioning system,” or LPS. Just like its navigational counterpart, the LPS utilizes multiple, integrated data points to orient us: where are we, where are we going, and how do we get there?


    But access to and evaluation of data across the district is not the end goal for us. Rather, we suggest that the real power of data analytics lies in what follows: action. The complex, nuanced vantage that data interoperability enables should subsequently inform instructional habits and practices at the point of delivery—the classroom. Thus, interoperability not only gives us data on learning but, most significantly, data in service of learning. The question we encourage our teachers to ask of themselves and each other is: How can we build data-informed habits and practices into classroom instruction in a way that remains faithful to how we want our students to learn?


    An LPS can inspire other important questions, from all angles. For instance, from the district perspective:  How can we re-allocate our resources most effectively? Does the data align with district goals for equity and inclusion? From the parent perspective: How do I best guide my child on his or her path toward success?  What are my child’s signature strengths and how can I help my child realize his or her full potential? And from the student perspective: What am I especially good at that gives me a sense of accomplishment and pride? What do I need to work on to improve my grades, behavior, or mindset if I want to reach my goals?  In fact, relative to students’ perception of themselves as agents of learning (self-efficacy), we firmly believe that the LPS can be a game-changer, empowering students to visualize their progress, set goals, test strategies, and, ultimately, develop an affirming self-narrative.


    Supporting the Whole Child Through a Learner Positioning System. In the Morris School District, we’ve laid out seven steps toward the development of a learner positioning system based on the interdependence of a standards-based curriculum, a broad view of student achievement, and a seamless digital platform for data interoperability. We believe these steps will allow us to engage an entire system in responding to each student’s unique needs.


    Step 1: Mastery of the Standards. A rigorous, coherent PK-12 curriculum grounded in the NJ Student Learning Standards is the bedrock of our instructional core, and everything is aligned within that core—from instructional strategies, benchmark assessments, and technology integration to professional development and supervision and evaluation.  Viewing our educational objectives through the lens of student mastery of the standards also allows us to remain focused on our goals for equity and inclusion.


    Step 2: “Data IN,” Phase 1. Our student achievement data is drawn from many sources, including common benchmark assessments, grades, standardized tests, i-Ready and other personalized learning programs, enrollment in AP courses, etc. All of this is coalesced within our student information system (PowerSchool), which then feeds into a comprehensive Student Success Dashboard that also features social and emotional metrics. As administrators, one of our primary concerns at this step is to make sure everyone across the district is looking constructively at the data in the same way, and avoiding simplistic explanations or assumptions about students and their learning. Interoperability, whose very premise is the integration of multiple sources of data, helps us avoid the pitfalls of one-dimensional narratives.  


    Step 3: Data-informed Habits and Practices. This step involves taking analytics to action. We view instruction as an organic, responsive enterprise, and we want to ensure that our teachers continually adjust their habits and practices according to what they themselves are learning about their classrooms and their individual students. Again, the data alone is not enough; we are interested in how the data becomes actionable, including how it informs and shapes instruction at the point of delivery.


    Step 4: The Whole Child. Our district and building administrators have spent a lot of time reflecting on what it means to commit to the idea that our students will leave our district “prepared for life.” We want to expand our definition of student learning to encompass social-emotional learning, leadership, and connection to the community and the world at large, in addition to mastery of the standards. Although standards-based instruction is foundational, it need not (and should not) dominate the landscape of student achievement. To be fully prepared for life, to be truly future ready, we believe each student deserves a holistic approach to education.


    Step 5: “Data IN,” Phase 2. If, as explained above, the education of the whole child drives our purpose, we must broaden our understanding of what constitutes relevant, actionable student data accordingly.  Interoperability grants us quick and easy access to teacher-, counselor-, administrator-, and student-reported data on attendance, behavior, participation in co- and extracurricular activities, interest inventories, sense of belonging and connectedness, climate and culture, and social-emotional perceptions and competencies. All of this, complemented by the varied sources of standards-based data described in Step 2, can be synthesized to yield a comprehensive, multidimensional view of students and their learning. 


    Step 6: “Data OUT.” Thanks to a highly productive partnership with Panorama Education, we now have a viable platform through which to accomplish this synthesis of different metrics: a customizable Student Success Dashboard that syncs with our existing data systems and provides a complete, in-the-moment picture of student progress consonant with what matters most to our school district. The Dashboard affords us the creative power to analyze and use the data flexibly, based on our needs: we can filter survey results, combine data sets to identify trends, couple relevant data points with our own rubrics, or monitor student progress along any continuum we identify. With such extensive insight, we can respond constructively with proactive, rather than reactive, support for each student in a way that acknowledges—and takes full responsibility for—the emergence of what Jane Thompkins (1996) has called, in other learning contexts, “an integrated person” (p. 218). The notion of data in service of learning thus moves beyond the academic plane to encompass students’ physical, behavioral, social, and emotional well-being as well.


    Step 7: A Systemic Web of Human Connections. As central office administrators of a socioeconomically and culturally diverse school district, we are often asked how we can overcome or even attenuate obstacles to student success like poverty, racism, disenfranchisement, or trauma. One answer is that we work to ensure an entire system is in place to support our students—a system that draws equally on the tiered network of resources and interventions we design (RTI or MTSS) and on the human capital of our parent-teacher-counselor-administrator partnerships. Indeed, we are firm in our conviction that each student must be surrounded and supported by a “web of relationships with an array of adults” (Freeland Fisher 2018). Along these lines, we also envision the advent of a mentoring or advisory program in our schools where counselors will work with students to help them reimagine learning, achievement, and life preparation. Such a program must be personalized and sustained in order to guide our students through the process of building learning strategies, metacognition, and executive function skills; visualizing progress and setting short- and long-term goals; articulating areas of interest, strength, and challenge; recognizing and fortifying self-efficacy; and shaping an affirmative self-narrative.  


    Capitalizing on Operational Excellence. Our ability to successfully coordinate all of the moving parts of an LPS is enhanced by our having a purposeful vision for staffing. Fluid, ongoing collaboration among our teachers, counselors, content area supervisors, building administrators, and district administrators is, of course, paramount. But we also want to be certain that we know exactly who does what, so marshalling the special expertise of key staff members in particular areas along the data integration route is an indispensable component of the total collaborative endeavor. To this end, within the last year we reconceptualized two positions such that they now align perfectly with our overarching goals for interoperability: a Director of HR and Equity and a Supervisor of SEL and Information Management. Together with the Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services, and two Directors of Technology (Instruction and Infrastructure), our central office administrative team provides the domain knowledge necessary to operationalize a vision of full-scale data interoperability that reflects and reinforces our district’s core values and enduring aspirations.


    While “data” is often cited as a depersonalized mechanism for understanding the student experience, the idea of a learner positioning system seems to resonate very strongly with parents in our district who have attended our presentations. We hope that by sharing our district’s approach to interoperability and student support, we can contribute to a widespread reframing in education of the purpose of data and data analytics. In our view, an LPS can fulfill what is perhaps the most far-reaching intention of our profession:  to impact actual people’s lives in appreciable ways.    



    Freeland Fisher, J. (2018, September 28). Why a web of connections—not a single relationship—should surround students. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-09-28-why-a-web-of-connections-not-a-single-relationship-should-surround-students


    Thompkins, J. (1996). Life in school: What the teacher learned. Reading, MA: Perseus Books.


    Editor's Note:

    Special thanks to Dr. Jen van Frank, Communications and Community Relations Coordinator, Morris School District for her substantive contributions to this article.