May 29, 2009

Shaw sees 'data warehouse' as key to Unified improvement

Racine Unified Superintendent James Shaw met with the Racine Unified School Board on May 28 to review his first nine months as head of the school district. The far-reaching conversation touched on several issues facing our public schools. We're breaking down the meeting by topic and will post stories over the next few days reporting on the meeting.

Near the top of Superintendent James Shaw's wish list for Racine Unified is a warehouse.

OK, that's a little misleading. What Shaw really wants is a "data warehouse," which is an important distinction. Instead of storing inventory and equipment, Shaw wants to store numbers. Lots and lots of numbers.

Like every Racine Unified student's grades, test scores, attendance records, extracurricular activities, GPA, credits and anything else administrators, teachers, parents - even the public (student confidentiality would be maintained) - needs to evaluate and improve student, school and district-wide performance.

“The idea is to get data in the hands of everybody,” Shaw said.

Listening to Shaw talk, it's easy to see why he covets data. Many of his sentences begin with the phrase, "The research says ..." and Shaw often talks about using numbers to uncover problems and work out solutions.

Data warehouses are a growing trend in schools, and according to Shaw, Racine is falling behind other districts. Milwaukee and Kenosha both have data warehouses in place and are training staff to use them. For example, one database search can pinpoint freshman with high test scores but low GPAs, giving schools the opportunity to create study skill sessions for them.

Case High School is testing out a pilot version of what's possible. Parents of some classes can log into a website and check on test scores, assignments and other numbers.

Shaw has more ambitious plans for a more comprehensive system in every Unified school. The system would cost millions of dollars, but $10 million in federal stimulus money over the next two years is arriving just in time to create the data warehouse Shaw hopes to see. (The stimulus bill, which restricts how the federal can be used, actually recommends districts create data warehouses as a way to help the economy.)

“If we don’t have the bottom drop out, we should have enough money,” he said.

School Board member Dennis Wiser, a former math teacher, said math teachers have long requested a system to track students’ math history through grades and test scores. That’s the type of thing that can be included in the data warehouse, Shaw said.

Board member Julie McKenna said she's hearing demand for the system. “Parents want this,” she said.

As far as a timetable, Shaw offered a hint of frustration with the pace of change in Unified. One technician told him he could get a data system running by fall, but Shaw was skeptical.

“That’s not been my experience so far in Racine, that we can do those things so quickly,” he said.

But principals are creating data teams for the summer to figure out what should be included in the data warehouse, and at least the beginning of a system could be in place by next school year, Shaw said.

That said, Shaw said advice he’s receiving on the system is to “go slow and do it the right way.”

That means involving teachers and principals in the setup process and then making sure everyone in the district gets trained on how to use the system.

“It’s not that they have it,” Shaw said, “it’s that it’s used.”

One sticky question: When will teachers have time to crunch the data to gain insights on their students? Shaw said the district needs to figure out a way to give teachers time to do that work within the school day.

He’s hopeful the district can hire “coaches” to work with principals and teachers on how to use the system. The district had three such coaches – ex-teachers with years of experience and training - this year, and it helped principals learn how to use data to identify and solve problems, Shaw said.


  1. Yeap, Hire more people and spend more money that outta fix the problem.
    My little girl is almost 3 and I dread sending her to RUSD.

    I'm praying for a miracle and hoping to send her to Racine Montessori.

  2. Missing is any evidence that the district has improved anything since Dr. Shaw took over. Also missing is any evidence that the "data warehouse" has ever improved any district!

  3. Heather in Caledonia5/30/2009 8:30 AM

    If other school districts are doing this, should there be a "package" we could purchase? It could then be tweaked to meet RUSD's unique specifications. I would think that would take a lot less time than starting from scratch.

  4. Let's make this topic the simple activity it is rather than complex like the district is trying to do in the article. Data warehouse is another word for the inforamtion you have on your computer systems. When a large organization has a lot of data they call it data warehouse. The term and concept has been around for decades. There are many tools to "mine" the data warehouse that can cost a lot or a little, but in the end they are just searching the computer information and presenting the information in a way people can understand. Pulling data out of the computer systems can only be done when those seeking the data can clearly explain to a computer person what they want to know from the computer. Some times the data can provide information to resolve problems and other times the data is used to defend an action already decided.

    The data warehouse already exists. It is the information that the district has on its computer systems. The real story should be that it took this long for the administration to figure out that information could be searched to provide insight on how to run the district. The concept of looking at computer data to make decisions isn't news. The apparent news is that no one in RUSD has been looking at the data.

    My last concern is that Shaw has someone in his operation that thinks they can get out the types of information that he is looking for and his response is to insult the person during the interview.

    So what took RUSD so long to figure out they had a data warehouse and they should use it?

  5. Most of the comments so far demonstrate that the speakers' educations are sorely lacking -- where did _they_ go to K-12? How come _they_ didn't get any more out of it?

    1) Unified has long had difficulty interpreting the data they collect, especially when the interpretation is less than positive from their view. That 'education' data is hard to handle is a problem in itself.

    2) Collecting data, esp. educational data outside of assigned grades, is no easy task in itself.

    3) Data is not a 'data warehouse' until it is easily accessible and interpretable. Having data in two or three different systems that don't 'talk' to each other is not a 'data warehouse.' I have no idea how accessible RUSD's data is today, nor how complete it is. People who _do_ know, should be talking with Dr. Shaw to see how to make it work.

    4) Memo to Dr. Shaw (and all skeptics besides): If your data collection & interpretation system doesn't work in a paper form, turning it into electronic form will make it run faster, but it still won't work. Plan that collection system carefully.

    5) A valid collection system is only as good as the internal auditing to assure that collection is complete and accurate. Especially on 'bad' news. Auditing is part of the 'data warehouse' collection system; don't forget it.

    6) The best way to assure a good collection _and_ interpretation system is to ask the questions that you want answered, up front, before the system is locked in. Make sure the system planners know how they will collate the information to answer the questions - with 'dummy' data if need be to show they can answer them. They may need training/education to figure out how to do it.

    7) And if this requires more people to set up (Anonymous 5/29; 7:31 pm), so be it. That's what the stimulus money is for.

    8) good luck to Dr. Shaw, and all of RUSD.

  6. Next week, Dr. Shaw plans on inventing the wheel!

  7. AFTER he hires the deputy CEO; or whatever he calls himself now.

  8. Having the data doesn't seem like it will make much of a difference. Will those numbers matter? How does that help us to make sure children are learning and don't drop out? Children learn new concepts everyday. They can be ahead in multiplication and lose everything on division. How is this data going to help individuals? Spend the time and money on a great curriculum with plenty of hands on experience and practice.

  9. It is reported that Shaw is the 2nd highest paid school official in the state, at $250,000.00 per year in salary and benefits, yet he seems to be in the lower percentage of the class.

    Data warehousing is simply information placed in database tables that can be accessed by quiery. It doesn't matter if all of RUSD's computers can "talk" to each other. There is probably a standard database (i.e. Access, or some other brand) uniformly used throughout RUSD which can be accessed from a central location via the internet. Once that is coordinated and made accessable, all of the data can be imported into a master database and made available to anyone who has the password to access it. RUSD can even use their own database class instructors to implement the system, provided they're smart enough to know how to do it.