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Munetrix Named SIIA Education Technology 2021 CODiE Award Finalist

Academic Module Named to Best Collaborative Solution for Teachers Category

We are proud to announce that the Munetrix Academic Module 2.0 was named a 2021 SIIA CODiE Award finalist in the Best Collaborative Solution for Teachers category. CODiE Award finalists represent applications, products and services from developers of educational software, digital content, online learning services and related technologies across the PreK-20 sector. 

The Munetrix Academic Module is a comprehensive, all-in-one solution for educators being tasked with more—with less time and fewer resources. It was developed to accelerate academic outcomes and facilitate the monitoring of progress made by the whole student—academically, emotionally, socially, demographically, and socio-economically—all with a single, easy-to-use interface.

One award judge remarked, in evaluation of the Academic Module, that the product represents “the ‘unicorn’ that our district teachers and administrators have been looking for! A one-stop shop for data to help support students and achievement! It includes SO many pieces for educators, personnel, finance, achievement, evaluations and improvement plans — for students, staff and operations.” [WATCH VIDEO HERE.]

Acknowledged as the premier awards program for the software and information industries for over 35 years, the SIIA CODiE Awards are produced by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), the principal trade association for the software, education, media, financial information and digital content industries. The Munetrix Academic Module was honored as one of 152 finalists across the 42 education technology categories. 

“Being named a finalist, among the company we are proud to be keeping, is humbling recognition of the hard work we’ve done as a company and in cooperation with the educators we serve,” said Buzz Brown, vice president of customer engagement and chief data officer with Munetrix. “Our mission has long been to make data accessible, actionable, holistic, and easy for anyone to use and understand.”

By harvesting and contextualizing public and private data into one powerful combination, the product provides schools a unique, holistic platform that empowers districts to analyze all of their data with a single log-in and destination, supporting horizontal succession planning, building institutional knowledge, and workflow management all in one place. Offered in conjunction with a financial analytics and planning engine, the Academic Module is a comprehensive suite of powerful, interdependent solutions that takes multi-level, complex data sets and makes them simple to understand, report and act upon, including: achievement and growth data, student reporting, needs assessment, educator evaluation, progress monitoring, as well as financial budgeting, forecasting and modeling.

“The CODiE Awards recognize the most exciting and transformative products in Ed Tech,” said Jeff Joseph, SIIA President. “This year, these leaders helped our nation respond to the historic pandemic, enabling learners, educators, administrators and parents to remain connected to each other and to critical educational resources via an array of innovative services and platforms. Congratulations to this year’s finalists for demonstrating the vitality, resilience and importance of this important industry.”

The SIIA CODiE Awards are the industry’s only peer-recognized awards program. Educators and administrators serve as judges and conduct the first-round review of all education nominees. Their scores determine the SIIA CODiE Award finalists which accounts for 80% of the overall score. SIIA members then vote on the finalist products and the scores from both rounds are tabulated to select the winners. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Business Technology category winners will be announced during an online winner announcement celebration June 22, 2021.

About Munetrix

Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Munetrix, provides schools, districts, educators and administrators cloud-based data management tools and proprietary performance management applications that range from academic achievement, budget and finance to personnel management, team collaboration and asset management solutions. The Academic Module empowers educators, from the district office to the individual teacher, to easily analyze various student data at the individual student, class, grade, building and district level across multiple assessments with a few clicks. Correlations between state and nationally normed assessment data are calculated using actual district student data — not projected data — providing an accurate picture of achievement trends within the district. It also empowers educators to analyze year-over-year grade-level trends and cohort trends to identify areas of strength and need in curriculum, instructional practices, etc.

Learn more about the full suite of applications for teachers and administrators here.

About the SIIA CODiE™ Awards

The SIIA CODiE Awards is the only peer-reviewed program to showcase business and education technology’s finest products and services. Since 1986, thousands of products, services and solutions have been recognized for achieving excellence. For more information, visit siia.net/CODiE.

About Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA)

SIIA is the only professional organization connecting more than 700 data, financial information, education technology, specialized content and publishing, and health technology companies. Our diverse members manage the global financial markets, develop software that solves today’s challenges through technology, provide critical information that helps inform global businesses large and small, and innovate for better health care and personal wellness outcomes.

Education, K-12, News, Press Releases

Munetrix First to Earn Ed-Fi Consumer Badge for Data Consumption

First in Category to Demonstrate Adherence to Ed-Fi’s Rigorous Standards

Munetrix has become the first vendor of its kind to earn the prestigious Ed-Fi “Consumer Badge” in the category of Data Consumption. This badge is awarded to solution providers that have developed a robust Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering that adheres to Ed-Fi’s rigorous quality, availability, and transparency standards.

Ed-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering a community of educators with real-time, comprehensive student data, has developed a set of rules for the collection, management and organization of educational data that allows multiple systems to share their information in a seamless, actionable way. The earned designation shows Munetrix’s adherence to the Ed-Fi Data Standard and supports “interoperability.”

“The importance of this achievement cannot be overstated,” said Cesare Tise, manager, strategic partnerships, Ed-Fi Alliance. “We know that school districts and states that implement a modern data management infrastructure based on interoperability standards are better able to serve their educators, students and parents, especially at this critical time. Now, a district or state of any size, any budget, any expertise level can reap the benefits of connected data to support the educators and students they serve. By being the first to earn this badge in its category, Munetrix has paved the way for the districts and schools they serve, such as those in the MiDataHub, to deliver better data in much more accessible and leverageable ways.”

About Interoperability

A data standard defines rules for how data should be formatted and exchanged between systems. Typically, every piece of educational technology has used its own “language” for storing and managing data. One tool’s language was different from the next’s—making integration nearly impossible. The student information system couldn’t talk to the learning management system, which couldn’t talk to the assessment software, and so on.

Drawing from a team of educators in 36 states and districts nationwide as well as technologists (known as the Ed-Fi Alliance), Ed-Fi has crafted the premier data standard for K-12 school districts and state agencies. It’s been used by real educators and tested by real schools. Ed-Fi seamlessly connects education data systems to have a complete, real-time view of every student in new, practical and transformative ways.

“Receiving this badge is gratifying reward to the hard work we’ve done as a company and in cooperation with the educators we serve,” said Buzz Brown, vice president of customer engagement and chief data officer with Munetrix. “Our mission has long been to make data accessible, actionable, holistic, and easy for anyone to use and understand. By making our system communicate seamlessly across platforms, we are achieving the interoperability that Ed-Fi sets the standard for.”

About Munetrix

Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Munetrix, provides schools, districts, educators and administrators cloud-based data management tools and proprietary performance management applications that range from academic achievement, budget and finance to personnel management, team collaboration and asset management solutions. In partnering with Munetrix, municipalities and school districts are able to manage their data and access cost-effective products and advisory services to make meaningful and reliable budgets, financial projections, trend reports and better-informed forward-looking decisions. Learn more at www.munetrix.com.

About the Ed-Fi Alliance

The Ed-Fi Alliance is a nationwide community of leading educators, technologists, and data advocates connecting student data systems in order to transform education. A not-for-profit organization founded in 2012, by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Ed-Fi aims to boost student achievement by empowering educators with real-time, comprehensive insight into every student.

Ed-Fi technologies streamline data management in school districts and states across the country. By allowing schools to integrate data previously siloed within disconnected tools and software—and organizing it through a single, secure data standard —Ed-Fi solves one of the country’s most perplexing educational challenges: how to get a complete, accurate view of individual student achievement, so that every student can receive the support they need when they need it most.

Education, K-12, News, Opinion, Uncategorized

Creating a District-Wide Culture of “Data Literacy” to Achieve Equity in Education

How to Map a Path to Your Equity Goals Tomorrow by Understanding Where Your District Stands Today

By Peter Solar and Mike Geers

A version of this article originally appeared on District Administration magazine.

As educators everywhere place an increasing focus and emphasis on achieving equity and equality in education—working to address historical inequities and increase opportunities for all students—a new challenge has emerged to present an even greater hurdle: not knowing what we don’t know. This is especially critical as stakeholders work together to specifically address the equity piece of equity and equality, as equity should be regarded as a destination, or something demonstrably achievable, as opposed to a mere goal of ambiguous “improvement.”

As the trope goes, there are things that we know, things that we don’t know, and things we don’t know that we don’t know—and it’s in that last category where lies a danger that, gone unaddressed, could result in well-meaning intentions causing purpose-defeating ends. 

With so much at stake, at a time in which so many are uniting in common purpose and resolve, it’s critical to get this initiative right, for current students and for future generations to come. 

Our secret weapon in this cause is something districts have at their ready disposal, but which has historically presented difficulty harnessing: data. It’s not that districts and educators don’t have access to data—quite the contrary. Data is everywhere: public databases, district-owned systems, spreadsheets, census bureaus, government entities…even desk drawers and computer hard drives! 

Yes, districts are data-rich. But they’re knowledge-poor.

Start with a Clear Picture

It’s one thing to set generalized standards for what a better future might look like—greater equity, more equitable access, etc.—but quite another to set definitive metrics for what improvement looks like, and what the final destination might be. The latter are hard numbers, and they’re specific, measurable milestones.

But to achieve progress toward a goal, you must have a clear picture of where your district stands today. What, precisely, is the current reality when it comes to existing equity gaps—social, emotional, educational and financial? The only way to truly understand the disparities (and the degree/extent of disparity) is to look at hard data. Numbers don’t lie, and there are numbers everywhere.

If there were ever a critical time and clear justification for the modernization of school districts’ data management systems, this is it. No longer is it enough to have data storage systems. We must get the numbers off of the paper, out of the spreadsheets, unlocked and out of disparate systems that house our data, and get them all into one system, where they can be analyzed and cross-analyzed, aggregated and disaggregated, compared, contrasted and shared.

“Using data to inform all of our practices in K12 education—from budget management to student instruction—is more important than ever,” says Paul Liabenow, Executive Director with The Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA). “We must analyze the data that we find at our fingertips to make timely course corrections if our desired outcomes are not being met. Most importantly, we must use data to expose and correct inequities in our systems and immediately make changes for the benefit of our marginalized students.”

Making the Invisible Visible

As districts and educators, and as the cornerstones of the communities we serve, we should be cross-pollinating and overlaying publicly available census data, district financial and modeling data, student achievement and educator evaluation data, population demographics and economic data, student migration and graduation data, grant and budget-forecasting data…all of it. And more. We should be working with our partners (public and private) in the communities we serve to harness as much information as possible. 

Only then will we truly understand the equity gaps that exist in our buildings and in our communities. And only then will we be able to conceive of and implement data-driven strategies, plans and programs to overcome them. Anything less, and we risk applying a well-meaning solution to the wrong problem, thereby missing the opportunity to achieve the end itself, or worse, exacerbating the problem.

A complete data set has the effect of “making the invisible, visible.” That danger of not knowing what we don’t know is very real. What if a root cause of a given inequity is presumed to be financial in nature, but in reality, is socio-political? Will throwing more money at this particular situation address root causes, or will it merely present the illusion of effort? And can you even measure progress toward a goal if you’re addressing the wrong underlying cause? Given that scenario, will your efforts be rewarded and applauded, or be met with cynicism and demands for greater transparency or compliance, when reporting demonstrates lack of progress?

If we truly want to address the drivers of inequity, we must first see them, later make sure we understand them, and finally show our work in overcoming them. By tapping into all available data sources, and enabling the data points to talk to each other, we can determine if a particular gap is driven by economics, demographics, geography, educator experience, or geopolitics.

You simply can’t see the invisible by looking at spreadsheets, one at a time.

Create a Culture of Data Literacy to Measure Everything—Even the Invisible

The challenges that educators face when it comes to equity—as well as equality—in education are similar in nature to all of the other myriad challenges confronting district personnel:

  1. Understanding the issue, problem, challenge or opportunity;
  2. Understanding what steps to take to overcome the shortcoming or achieve the aspiration; and
  3. Reporting out to the various stakeholders and compliance officers that action is being taken, and to what effect.

Achieving a district-wide commitment to what we call a “culture of data literacy” is a district’s best opportunity to check all three boxes, including for today’s equity and equality initiatives. This means having a very real, very consistent commitment to optimal data-use practices in order to facilitate better data-driven decisions. Enough of the invisible; enough of not knowing what we don’t know. There are easily implemented and easily understood systems that take all of the time and labor we used to devote to the administrative headaches of keeping data systems current and execute it all for us…way better and faster than we humans ever could.

Take these actions as a district, and yours will be well on its way to achieving this culture of data literacy, and making measurable, demonstrable progress toward greater equity and equality:

Understand the whole community. Know the district you serve, and not just its students and parents. What portion of the population rents versus owns? What is the size and nature of its homeless population? What about its percentage of single-parent households? What is the district’s complete demographics picture, from ethnicity to income, and everything in between? What are the geographic boundaries, anomalies and trends? All of these data points are potential contributors to inequality. But until you see them all, overlaid against one another, it’s difficult to discern which are the drivers, and which are the resultant outcomes.

Follow the money. Do you truly and completely know your financial spend at a district level, and at a building-to-building level? Do you know which schools have more active and more successful grant writing initiatives, and do those (or lack thereof) have an impact on financial gaps or inequities? What are the tax revenues, as well as state and federal funding sources, relative to your neighboring districts and statewide peers? “More money” is one solution, yes. But if a district doesn’t know how the money is spent now, how can it make a better plan to more efficiently allocate resources to greater effect, equity and equality, so that the new good money doesn’t go out with the old, bad?

Evaluate personnel. Consider cross-referencing student achievement data with financial data sets and educator evaluations. Are the higher-income areas of the district being served by teachers with more experience, and is that contributing to (or working against) student achievement metrics and educator outcome inequities?

Quantify the gaps and articulate the needs. With some $54 billion coming to schools in the second federal stimulus, a significant portion of that will be earmarked to address learning loss and student well-being (social, emotional and learning deficiencies). If you can’t quantify your district’s needs with hard numbers, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to demonstrate measurable progress toward closing the gaps, which will be a reporting requirement to be eligible for those funds. For example, can you demonstrate that your Title-I population experienced greater learning loss than the general population? Start this analysis now so you can expedite access to much needed federal funding and assistance to come as it becomes available.

Make it a team effort. Collaborate with district leaders, local office holders and city councils, police departments, and other entities that share your commitment to addressing community-wide inequities, and invite these stakeholders into the tent. Ask them to share their available data. Consider forming a task force with each entity represented at the table, and create a project workflow with assignable tasks and accountability, so that the entire community can share in the progress the district makes.

Get it together. Most importantly, get all available data sets into one, centralized, intelligent system, so that you can start with a clear picture of today, conceive of a measured plan for demonstrable progress, and implement that plan with purpose. With all of the data in one place, and with all stakeholders working together, reporting out to state and federal agencies will be easier, more transparent, and more accurate than ever before.

As with any important initiative, one cannot address such a critical goal of achieving equity in education by “going a mile wide and an inch deep.” There are so many interdependent forces at work—both historical and current, both plainly visible and subtly latent— that to make presumptions based on limited information or intuition does a disservice not only to the challenge before us, but to the requisite remedies as well.

Mike Geers

Peter Solar (left) is Director of Client Partnerships with Munetrix. He can be reached at peter@munetrix.com. Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, and he can be reached at mike@munetrix.com.

school assessment data
Education, K-12, Opinion

Addressing Inequities and Assessment Challenges Facing Educators, Students and Families Amid Imperfect Educational Environments

How Adopting Emerging Technologies Facilitates Learning, Simplifies Progress Monitoring, and Improves Student Outcomes

A version of this article originally appeared in District Administration Magazine.

As we approach the midpoint of this school year, students are learning via a variety of instructional modalities, including face-to-face, virtual and hybrid instruction.  As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising again, schools are shifting between instructional models to flex with changing health safety guidelines and local community dynamics. Educational pedagogy such as “synchronous” and “asynchronous learning” are becoming household terms. And, educators at all levels are making Herculean efforts to keep up with these challenges and to provide the best possible instruction for students.

In this oscillating climate, educators must pivot quickly to adapt—guided by data—to have the greatest impact on student learning. The ability to rapidly access, analyze and evaluate data—across multiple assessments and platforms (along with other types of data)—is critical to making decisions about instruction, programming and interventions.

The Continuing Impact COVID-19 Will Have on Students this Fall

A recent study conducted in partnership between NWEA, Brown University and University of Virginia (EdWorkingPaper 20-226) projects that “Students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math.” The study goes on further to state, “We estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading.” 

In short, not every student will be impacted in the same way, nor to the same degree. Equity plays a large role in the learning gaps between individual students resulting from a variety of elements including prior achievement, socioeconomic factors, access to technology and internet, teacher training on virtual instruction, support within the home, and more. 

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators to look at trends, past and present, and disaggregate trends easily by filtering at various levels.

Why is Data-Driven Instruction More Important Than Ever?

While assessments can be powerful tools to identify student needs or monitor student progress/growth, assessments are only powerful when the data is analyzed and applied to drive instruction, programming and interventions. Educators must use data to take action for data to have any utility. Otherwise, it’s just more test data.

In Paul Bambrick Santayo’s book, Driven by Data, he writes that schools need to change their focus from, “what is taught” to “what is learned.”  The impact of the pandemic on student learning and the ongoing transitioning of learning environments escalates the necessity of this shift in focus.

Bambrick-Santayo goes on to identify that there are four fundamental building blocks to data driven instruction: assessment, analysis, action and culture.

  • Assessments must be standards-aligned, with varying levels of questions for depth of knowledge and understanding and provide data that not only informs instruction but helps to compare students with their peers. 
  • Analysis is the key to using the data to identify areas of student need so that action can be taken. 
  • Educators must understand how to apply the conclusions from their data analysis to take appropriate actions that have the greatest impact.
  • Finally, educational leaders must create a culture in which data-driven instruction will thrive.  This includes providing and following an assessment calendar, providing time for deep data analysis and discussion, and encouraging/supporting educators in using the data to guide actions taken.
Dynamic reporting tools in data analytics systems allow educators to quickly analyze trends over multiple assessment periods, and aggregate/disaggregate data using filters.

The greatest barrier to moving from assessment to action is the deep and meaningful analysis of assessment data. Analysis requires the “systematic examination of assessment data to thoroughly determine students’ strengths and weaknesses, then taking the necessary steps to address their needs,” states Bambrick-Santayo.

How to Optimally Get from Assessment to Action

According to Bambrick-Santayo, the first core driver of analysis includes “user-friendly reports.” Time is the new premium. There isn’t the time, nor resources, available to build complex spreadsheets to facilitate comparing data across multiple assessment platforms. The skill level at which educators can analyze data varies as greatly as the instructional levels among students, and many educators may not have the technical skills to create and manage the elaborate spreadsheets needed for meaningful data analysis. Time to teach these new skills is severely limited or not available.  Furthermore, safety protocols, preparation for virtual learning classes, and the new logistics/daily routines of instruction have removed any “extra” time that was once nominally available.

Educators need tools that help analyze data across multiple platforms—quickly, easily and seamlessly. They want tools that provide easy-to-read reports, where computerized systems “crunch the numbers for them.” These tools should rapidly disaggregate or aggregate student assessment data at the student, class, grade, building or district level—by subject, standard or objective—all within a few clicks…not hours or days.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily group students by proficiency and skill/goal area for targeted instruction/intervention.

Dynamic platforms empower educators to change views rapidly in order to identify trends, gaps and areas of need. They help educators filter different types of student data, including achievement, attendance, behavior, demographic and perception data, so that schools and districts are able to analyze the needs of the whole child. In a perfect world, this should be available in one online platform (not multiple systems with different logins that require manual massaging of data between platforms). Data must be accessible anytime, anywhere, to adapt to changing school environments.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily identify significant gaps among different groups of students, help drive data-based decisions on interventions, programming and resource allocation.

A “New Normal” Guided by Data

Perhaps COVID-19 will accelerate the implementation of data-driven instruction to permeate more substantially in everyday educational practice. The easier data analysis is, the more it frees educators to spend their time taking meaningful action with students. For Data Driven practices to take root, educational leaders must also purposefully set aside time to infuse deep and meaningful data analysis, planning and action into the school culture. 

It’s not that educators don’t have enough access to data. It’s that educators need to easily convert that data into intelligence…and intelligence into action. Only then, can educators focus their time, energy, expertise and passion on what they do best—educating and developing today’s learners!

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Experience with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com. Learn more at munetrix.com.

References 

Bambrick-Santayo, Paul.  Driven by Data 2.0: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction.  Jossey-Bass, 2019.

Dorn, Emma, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Virelug. (2020)., COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.  Retrieved from Fresno State University: https://fresnostate.edu/kremen/about/centers-projects/weltycenter/documents/COVID-19-and-student-learning-in-the-United-States-FINAL.pdf

Kuhfeld, Megan, James Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Jing Liu. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05

Education, Fiscal Health, K-12, Opinion

Schools Should Take a Three-Phased Approach as They Plan to Return to “Normal”

How to Adapt Today, Become Adept Tomorrow, and What to Adopt Permanently

[A version of this post originally appeared on District Administration, a national trade journal serving school district administrators and educators.]

When announcements came that states were closing schools for the remainder of this school year, in a way they brought the first semblance of clarity to the myriad spate of unknowns. Soon, we began to look ahead to the fall school year, which brings its own set of variables and unknowns. While we expect timelines and announcements to vary from district to district and state to state, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it is unlikely that things will soon be getting “back to normal” in large measure.

With each day comes increased clarity, if only at the margins, but that clarity is often difficult to recognize in moments of urgency and quickly shifting priorities. But each day, discoveries are being made: we weren’t prepared for this or that, we hadn’t accounted for every contingency, or perhaps, maybe we’ve stumbled upon a better way to manage this particular task.

Which is why, though it may seem difficult at first, school districts and personnel at every level of education should be taking this time to reassess their systems, processes and vulnerabilities to optimize what will eventually be a return to some degree of normalcy. But it likely won’t happen overnight. In fact, we suggest that educators and administrators take a three-phased approach: take immediate remedial actions where you can in the short term, plan for an eventual transition back to a more recognizable learning environment, and document what new workflows should be permanently adopted as best practice long-term.

Phase One: Triage for Today

Literally overnight, educators and administrators were thrust into an entirely unfamiliar work and teaching environment. Technology needed to be learned and adopted without warning, nor training. Employees dispersed to millions of disconnected remote home offices in an instant. Nearly everything we took for granted, in terms of collaboration, communication and cooperation, was suddenly taken from us. And many instantly discovered the limitations and vulnerabilities that few had accounted for.

Access to systems and documents proved challenging for those who are used to keeping software and hardware under literal and figurative lock-and-key. If “it’s at my desktop at school,” it’s practically unreachable at the moment.

But work needs to get done. Meetings need to happen. Projects need to press forward, and budgets will soon be due. We cannot permanently pause. As many have discovered, time waits for no one. 

All of this underscores the need to quickly establish and document new workflows, new teams, new processes for planning, and new systems and technology that live in the cloud or are accessible to anyone who needs it, 24/7. 

Amid all of our other urgent priorities, administrators and educators should be documenting proper workflows that account for each of the following:

  • Tasks: Capture explicit documentation of all required tasks to complete a given project.
  • Teams: Make sure all tasks are assignable to ensure completion and inject accountability.
  • Timelines: Create project milestones that are clearly defined and realistically attainable.
  • Metrics: Measure progress and success against pre-established desired outcomes.
  • Prompts and Reminders: In times of uncertainty, teams will need (and respond to) built-in alerts and prompts when deadlines approach or new priorities arise.
  • Collaboration: Multiple teams may need to collaborate on overlapping projects. Create safeguards against tasks being missed due to workflow handoffs or unclear accountability.

Once decided upon and documented, leverage available technology to create one centralized knowledge base and project management tool, accessible remotely. Harnessing workflows into one centralized location will make sure nothing gets missed or skipped and can account for new workflows that might come along as priorities shift or change.

Phase Two: Transition to Tomorrow

Workflows, processes, systems and task forces will eventually need to return to a more conventional reality. The problem is, we don’t currently know when that will be. Perhaps it will be announced as suddenly as we transitioned away from our regularly scheduled programming. There will be a sense of relief, to be sure…but there will also be demanding deadlines and daunting decisions equal to those we are grappling with today. 

If uncertainty can be mitigated, now is the time to do it, when it is most relevant and obvious. School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and clerical support to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed, not only in the long term, but to avoid a painful transition-back in the nearer term.

In the past several weeks, decisions had to be made with little warning, and new processes had to be up and running overnight. But now we do have some luxury of foresight, knowing that a return to regular education is coming, even if we don’t know when. Perhaps now is the time to plan for those workflows and processes to be updated, especially considering that each individual workflow and task force might have several sub-workflows, and perhaps even disparate teams collaborating at different points and times.

A few transitions we can anticipate now, for which workflows and centralized knowledge bases can be established:

How will we track and process the return of devices that have been assigned out, and who is assigned to each subtask?

What is the new process for building preparation and maintenance, following the sudden dispersal of maintenance personnel, including timelines and accountabilities for reopening facilities?

What updates to registration workflows might need to be made if registration for the new school year is in a compressed time frame or needs to occur remotely/digitally?

How do our teacher and student evaluations need to be addressed, given how the final weeks of this school year’s curricula were delivered?

What changes need to be made to accommodate school lunch provision, both over the summer and should another similar crisis arise—remote delivery or centralized pickup?

Many districts were preparing to roll out a new math series in the fall: Will workflows need to accommodate new realities and timelines?

How will summer school be administered?

Are there necessary changes to scheduling and processing of material assets, such as bus maintenance?

As budget deadlines approach, how can we build in scenarios, given the many unknowns?

Technology is better equipped to manage these tasks, workflows and scenarios at scale than humans, pen-and-paper, or even static spreadsheet software (like Excel or Google Sheets). In most cases, the data to make informed decisions and create optimized workflows already exists and is readily available to school districts. There’s never been a better nor more urgent time to plug in to the tools at our disposal.

Phase Three: Adopt to Adapt, and Stay Adept

What many discover during times of crisis is that processes and procedures adapted out of urgency or necessity can actually be adopted as best practices going forward. In fact, the quicker, most efficient way to accomplish priorities can be discovered then defined to make our teams more effective while reducing costs and eliminating unnecessary exposures to human error.

The first step is moving away from paper and into digital environments. Next, make sure that data and technology is universally available and accessible—from anywhere, at any time, by anyone who should rightly have access. Lastly, allow (or force) technology to do the heavy lifting of planning, coordinating and measuring successful projects and collaborating teams.

Your new workflows and systems should allow you to:

  • plan and prepare for the unknown
  • proactively put processes in place and document workflows
  • account for contingencies
  • consider various and, perhaps even unforeseen, scenarios
  • trigger alternate paths, as appropriate
  • maintain a centralized knowledge repository that can be shared, not only among existing team members, but in perpetuity, even as personnel turnover continues at pace for the foreseeable future

School district professionals may find it challenging to manage the complexity of workflows even under “normal” circumstances. Maybe “normalcy” will return soon, but in the meantime, increased urgency and shifting priorities can create or elevate margin for human error. If we can use this challenge as an opportunity to modernize and optimize workflows, we will all be better for it…both in standard operating procedures and, heaven forbid, when the next crisis presents itself.

This discipline and attention to detail in the short term will build better habits for the long run. Once we emerge from crisis mode, we should take comfort in the lessons learned and the uncertainty conquered.

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Engagement with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com.

Fiscal Health, K-12, Municipal

What Can We Learn from this Forced New Reality?

Municipalities and School Districts Finding Need to Modernize Systems, Processes and Technology to Cope, Collaborate and Conquer Uncertainty

By and large, municipal governments and public school systems are doing admiral and applaudable work during this crisis that was suddenly thrust upon us all. From communicating to constituents with timely updates and critical announcements to establishing remote, virtual working and learning environments, what many have been able to achieve in such a short, compressed time frame is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, things haven’t been perfect. And some communities are coping more easily than others. But considering the circumstances, the early returns for most are encouraging, even as they are dispiriting. “We’re all in this together,” is a mantra we keep hearing, and it’s an important one to keep in mind as events continue to unfold.

No doubt, the cracks are starting to reveal themselves. Educators are confronting and working to overcome obstacles, as local governments are rising to meet previously unforeseen challenges, many seemingly unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. And while some of these newfound hurdles must and can be immediately cleared to keep our communities and schools operating, others are larger than what can be remedied in the here and now.

And therein lies both our collective challenge and opportunity: Take stock—there are lessons to be learned, and there are future decisions to inventory.

Prioritize and Triage Your Newly Discovered Vulnerabilities

In the short term, no doubt many school and municipal administrators are struggling to keep their heads above the proverbial water. But all water eventually finds its level, and there will, at some point, be an adjustment to this new normal, if only in parts. 

Some day, believe it or not, we will all get back to the old normal, and when we do, we will emerge more aware than ever of the challenges, vulnerabilities and downright deficiencies we were once willing to live with. We should use this opportunity—and the respite we’ll receive when we get back to “business as usual”—to take stock of the most critical cracks in our armor, knowing that the next crisis may just as quickly and just as critically present itself without warning. Will we be ready next time? Only if we start preparing today!

We encourage all municipal and school district administrators to document any discoveries they make relative to challenges they suddenly face, which may not have been quite so obvious when things were closer to normal. And we further urge them to encourage their entire staffs to do the same. 

Some challenges we expect many of you are struggling with include considerations such as:

Is there a remotely accessible knowledge bank for all to leverage? Or is critical data and information locked in desktop software on a computer that is suddenly behind locked doors? Or, worse yet, is there data, information or knowledge literally locked in a desktop drawer somewhere—as in, physically? Financial, operational and analytical knowledge, if it’s not already, should be accessible to anybody who needs it, wherever work may take them (in good times or in bad).

Are there tools and resources readily available to assist in the critical decisions we need to make in times of crisis? For example, many school districts need to make nearly instantaneous decisions regarding how and where they distribute their free and reduced lunch programs. A database that can instantly cross-sect demographic data based on need is a critical resource to efficiently answer questions, provide intelligence and inform critical decisions, in a whole host of applications and use cases.

How do we manage projects and teams when we’re all working from home? Significant projects, tasks and undertakings typically require the careful coordination of assets, budgets, personnel and calendars. This isn’t nearly as challenging when teams can convene, share physical project assets, and interact fluidly. But what about now, with no two people working in any single location? Project management software should facilitate collaboration, cooperative planning and dynamic budgeting, and even allow for asynchronous, a-geographical communication and coordination. Projects that have been long in the works might need to be urgently migrated to such third-party planning tools…then migrated back once we all get to enjoy some semblance of normalcy again.

What is our organization’s level of emergency preparedness? We’re re-learning during this most recent crisis just how quickly facts on the ground can change the modus operandi. What one day seems unimaginable and draconian may tomorrow feel necessary and intuitive. Coordinating, monitoring and documenting emergency preparedness and safety drills will be increasingly critical and, likely, more widely mandated in the future. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when “active-shooter lockdown” drills weren’t deemed necessary, but nuclear fallout drills were. And today, we are sheltering in place to escape and minimize viral infection. It’s important now more than ever to ask and answer: Will our systems and resources make such compliance and transparency easier, or more difficult?

Address the Urgent. Document the Important.

While we fully expect the cracks in the foundation to be showing (who in this world is today not waking up to new vulnerabilities and challenges?), we don’t expect that they be addressed and remedied overnight. Nor should they be. Sometimes, the decisions we make in times of crisis prove to be overreaches down the road.

But we can triage. We can document everything, and we can prioritize initiatives against considerations of urgency, impact and effect. Some challenges need to be immediately overcome, such as remote learning and virtual working environments. You’ve already taken steps in those regards. There will be more to consider. But you won’t be able to plug every hole in the dam at once.

Use this time to observe, to reflect and to take stock. Eventually, there will come a time when all (or most) of these challenges can and must be addressed. If we want to optimize our operations in preparation for times of crisis, we should modernize our technology, tools and resources now—once the dust of this current crisis clears. We will all need to rethink our priorities, plans and processes, not only to avoid future pain, but to attain an evergreen optimization of data, knowledge and valuable resources that represent the lifeblood of our communities. 

We must create a roadmap for tomorrow’s success, even amid today’s pain. There’s no better time to plan for that than the present, when we are right in the middle of it.

To join a no-cost Webinar that illustrates the capabilities and applications of the Munetrix ProjectTracker app, please register today. We plan to share tips and best practices for managing projects, personnel and budgets remotely.

If you have any questions relative to your community’s preparedness or data management capabilities, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Education, K-12, Municipal, Opinion

The Problem with Buzzwords

Is the use of jargon actually standing in the way of progress?

“Transparency.”

“Smart cities.”

“Big data.”

Our world is littered with them. Call them “buzzwords,” call it “jargon,” call it “government speak.” Whatever you call them, it’s clear that people are using words and expressions they don’t fully understand, can’t reliably define, and, what’s worse, won’t even recognize when they actually see them executed properly.

Heck, even the word “data” has become something of an overused, catch-all moniker being applied to virtually anything containing a fact or figure. Is a printout of a spreadsheet, tucked away in the desk drawer of a retired clerk, “data?” Is a crumpled-up, out-of-date map “data?” Is an artifact dug from an archeological site considered to be “data?”

And what makes data “big,” for that matter?

Or consider the concept of “smart cities.” What makes a city “smart?” Sure, there are definitions out there…but can you recite one? Most people can’t—even those clamoring for them (or even part of the conversation, in many instances).

Which brings us to “transparency.” Transparency is a word I’ve been hearing since the 1980s , first in the automotive world, later in the political arena , and now virtually everywhere you turn—including routine business matters with municipalities and school districts. But ask 100 people to define transparency and you’ll get 100 different answers. (I know…I’ve done it!) 

Even our old friend Noah Webster has a difficult time defining transparency: “the quality or state of being transparent.” (Not joking…look it up.) The definition of transparent per Webster is no joy either, the best of eight options being “readily understood.”  So the answer is: “the quality or state of being readily understood?” See the problem?

If we can’t even agree on definitions, how can we come to consensus as to whether we’ve achieved the outcomes we all profess to desire, such as government transparency, smart cities and the public’s understanding of available community data?

The Problem with Jargon

It’s not that they aren’t admirable and worthwhile pursuits, these commitments to transparency, the continued progress toward smarter cities, and providing universal community access to public data. They are. The problem arises when people use buzzwords as a shield from scrutiny or evaluation.

If nobody truly understands the meaning of a noble-sounding aspiration, it becomes easy to pay lip service to abstractions and hide behind actual results. Claims of transparency and “smart-ness” become easier to tout, as an unwitting public is becoming increasingly immune to their effects: We hear the words, we vaguely understand the actions people are making toward the objectives these buzzwords describe, and we assume progress is being made. It’s comforting, in a way.

But what if it’s not?

What if we end up with  the illusion of transparency, but, in reality, too few are actually achieving the intended goals of informing our public, community employees and elected officials?

Consider a hypothetical: An entity commissions a study and produces a 500-page report, then posts a PDF of that report somewhere buried deep within its website. Is this transparency? Is the PDF even data? At 500 pages, it certainly is big…but big data, it is not.

The ultimate danger that the proliferation of over-used and misapplied terminology poses to our communities is that we hear the lip service, we see activity and proposals, we witness claims of accomplishments, and we fall complacent to actually achieving measurable results and meaningful progress toward the vital ends our communities need to achieve—fiscally, scholastically, and politically.

Less Talk, More Walk

As an industry—and as a community—we can do better. As someone who works in the “data” business, I see the opportunities firsthand. We need to better educate our citizens about important initiatives we pursue on their behalf…and clearly report on the progress (or lack thereof) being made. 

Free of jargon. Free of buzzwords. Overflowing with clarity.

Let’s understand what types of information our community is truly interested in seeing, and let’s package those facts and figures in a way that is accessible and relevant to their interests. Let’s hold “Citizen 101” town halls to better educate our friends and neighbors about what they can know about, what they can care about…and what they should stay educated about…and let them tell us what “transparency” truly means to them.

It’s not that the technology isn’t there. We have all the data we need…big and small! And we look at ours daily. The types of information that people most readily click on and download just might surprise those who might be too close to the data to fully appreciate. People, school districts, and government entities may assume they’re offering data that complies with government-issued transparency mandates, and they may assume that that’s enough. But are they truly giving the people what they really care about in their everyday lives? Often not, I suspect.

There’s a standard for this already, to which I reference (and adhere to) often: the Government Accounting Standards Board’s (GASB) litmus test for the quality of data being shared. The six qualitative characteristics, as set forth in GASB’s Concepts Statement No. 1, Objectives of Financial Reporting are:

  • Relevant
  • Reliable
  • Understandable
  • Timely
  • Consistent
  • Comparable

Most of all, let’s make it simple. Let’s resolve—as an industry, as municipalities, as school districts, and as councils of government—to make it easy for elected officials and citizens alike to understand the terminology we use and the solutions we are trying to provide to achieve things like transparency and smart cities. 

An informed public is a powerful public. Let’s leave the buzzwords behind…and move our communities forward.

[To learn the one acceptable buzzword here at Munetrix, please click here.]

Education, K-12, News

Cities & Schools Reach Crisis Point Due to States’ Low Economic Reserves

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Many States Are Unprepared for Next Economic Downturn) caught my attention because it highlighted a key factor adding to the fiscal stress of municipalities and schools.  The article suggested that most states are unprepared for an inevitable economic downturn as they lack the necessary fiscal reserves or rainy-day funds to cushion the next financial blow, and, it’s already having a negative trickle-down effect.

Forced to do more with less since the last recession, cities and schools are continually struggling with reduced revenue sharing from their states while scrambling to meet the demands of unfunded mandates, retiree obligations, an aging infrastructure and even increased student testing. Add this to the anticipated silver tsunami caused by public sector retirements in the next decade, we see a myriad of local governments that are already stretched too thin and have reached a crisis point.

One of the most alarming things noted in the WSJ article was that some states appear to have little sense of urgency and limited tools to address these budgetary shortfalls. Forget crisis point—this dilemma will have far-reaching and long-term consequences for the populations served by those who gloss over the unavoidable hard truth and do nothing about it now.

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