It’s no secret that schools are strapped for cash, and that a lot of governmental oversight in the education sector revolves around tracking budget allocation.
In 2014, for example, the Center for American Progress released its Return on Educational Investment report, building on earlier efforts in 2011 with productivity guidance from the Department of Education—and before that, Standard & Poor’s credit rating system offered a service purportedly measuring school productivity.
But things are about to get a lot more complicated with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s fiscal transparency reporting requirements. The new legislation calls for tracking funds spent, beginning during the 2018-19 school year, and the first reports will be available the following year.
New reporting requirements
Signed by the Obama administration in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) outlines new reporting requirements aimed to designate resources more thoughtfully.
The ESSA requires districts to publish per-pupil allocations for each district and school, giving the public greater access to data on how money is spent. Administrators and policymakers can then use that data to examine why some schools seem to get more resources than others, as well as how spending aligns with a district’s vision.
Published expenditures must also include actual teacher salaries, rather than averages, which could reveal inequitable distribution of experienced teachers across districts.
According to Victor Goode, the education director for the NAACP, the new transparency requirements can help close the gap between schools serving low-income minority communities and other, more affluent districts. “This kind of public transparency is a good thing and can help provide more meaningful parental and community engagement,” he argues, “which is also essential to accountability and achieving educational equity.”
The idea is that, in the long run, the new reporting requirements will force superintendents to be smarter and more strategic about spending and productivity. In turn, they will be more accountable for their decisions.
The new guidelines are not without controversy, however. The Department of Education has supplied few guidelines for how to implement the changes, leading to questions about how to accurately assess expenditures. How a school differentiates between a school-level expenditure and a district-level expenditure, for example, is one of these challenges.
It also doesn’t help that there’s a clear lack of interoperability between schools when it comes to how they collect data. Not all schools use the same recordkeeping software, for instance. Without a uniform reporting procedure in place, schools will have trouble generating reports that provide the same information, in the same way, as other institutions.
Finally, the ESSA’s transparency guidelines require a facility with data that could very well exceed the capabilities of those whose responsibility it is to draft the required reports.
Robert Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, suggests that the complexity of recordkeeping will likely be difficult for administrators at the state level: “We question whether the state officials would even have the expertise and the capacity to evaluate spending levels between schools,” he says.
Data management and the ESSA
Since the ESSA’s new requirements are in part for public consumption, accurately and clearly representing data becomes paramount.
Parents want to know how their children’s educational resources match those of children in other schools, while the greater public can use the ESSA data to see how their tax dollars are being spent. As such, the ESSA’s transparency requirements necessitate a more functional data storage protocol—one that allows swaths of information to be cross-referenced, easily accessed, and presented in a clear format that is easy to understand.
It may be uncharitable to describe data collection in the education system as antiquated, but the speed of technological advancement in recordkeeping has outpaced the ability of institutions to adopt them. Currently, most schools store data separately in different areas. Testing data might be stored in one system and enrollment data in another, with data related to budgeting and school expenditures contained in yet another system.
Put simply, many school districts don’t have the technological or organizational resources to track per-student spending. This kind of tracking requires making connections between wide-ranging datasets, which in turn are often stored in different systems with incompatible software.
Imagine, for example, generating a report bringing together the performance of students in disadvantaged communities, budget allocations for reduced-lunch programs, and teacher experience. The interplay between recordkeeping systems and datasets boggles the mind, even without the compounding challenge of working between disparate software systems.
How blockchain can help
In a previous post, we showed how blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the education sector—and perhaps it is most clearly applicable to the field of data management.
Since schools will experience unprecedented organizational pressure to maintain, store, and process records, blockchain technology’s ability to make entries on an immutable ledger—one that’s verifiable, secure, and accessible from anywhere at any time—can go a long way to helping administrators meet the incoming demands of the ESSA’s guidelines.
Right now, schools manage data according to “student information systems,” which include school registration, attendance, grades, “learning systems,” and all of the educational content as well as learning records, test results, and so forth. Blockchain technology can connect these systems for more accurate and efficient data analysis, creating a digital transcript for each student, while AI technology analyzes student data and records.
Sony’s Global Education Program has emerged as a frontrunner in blockchain applications to education. By using “technology that makes mutual use of educational achievements and activity records in an open and safe way,” its blockchain “centralizes the management of data from multiple educational institutions and makes it possible to record and reference educational data and digital transcripts.” In this program, schools can use blockchain technology to manage transcripts and keep attendance records, test scores, and education achievements.
A recent paper published in Smart Learning Environments further argues that “the decentralized nature of a blockchain network changes the databases of the entire transaction records from closed and centralized ledgers maintained by only a few accredited institutions to open distributed ledgers maintained by tens of thousands of nodes,” such that “the failure of a single node does not affect the operation of the whole network.”
In other words, blockchain technology’s ledger prevents large-scale data loss to which conventional recordkeeping systems often fall prey.
In the long run, the Every Student Succeeds Act’s fiscal transparency reporting guidelines have the potential to enhance educational opportunities, correct inefficiencies in spending, and allow for wider public access to funding allotment. In the short term, however, the compliance challenges and increased data management will create a lot of headaches for administrators unused to handling so much data.
Thanks to its capacity to store data on a readily accessible ledger, blockchain technology may prove a significant boon to administrators tasked with generating comprehensive reports to meet the ESSA’s requirements.