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Focus on: Optimize operations, Empower educators

Ten years ago, Mark Masterson was running data management for one of the world’s leading enterprise and commercial shipping services. From average carrier mileage to the gallons of water necessary to get a carrier-camel across the Sahara, if it could be quantified, Masterson was involved. Masterson has spent his career neck-deep in data, and as those cells, rows, and columns stacked up, so did the resources spent trying to manage them. But for Mark that was rarely a problem. Mark is a disruptor, an analyst specializing in turning systems on their heads and transforming them into something efficient, innovative, and empowering. And in 2010, the Arizona Department of Education needed someone to do exactly that.

This is a real story of digital transformation.

Click above to explore the numbers behind the Arizona Department of Education’s transformation

Arizona’s data challengeThe state of Arizona was in a dark place. Its Department of Education was responsible for reimbursing the state’s public schools for the population of students they serve, but it was offering financial support based on dozens of outdated databases that produced disorganized and often conflicting information. Districts were taking out loans just to pay their teachers, and no one could pinpoint where this unruly mess came from or what they could do to fix it. The legacy system the district used was down 26 out of 52 weeks.

Through research, the Arizona DOE found that the districts and charters spent 568,000 staff hours annually dealing with the DOE’s data errors. The existing system had 2.3 million annual transaction errors, which forced local schools and districts to spend an estimated $30 million every year to correct them.

The district also found that despite significant efforts to stabilize and maintain operations on the existing system, a reduction in the error rates from more than 80 percent down to less than three percent overall still represented nearly two million errors per year that had to be manually rectified.

Stepping into the world of education is no easy task. Moving from the relative freedom and control of the private sector to the budget constraints and shifting requirements of education meant Mark had to dedicate himself to improving outcomes for students. For help, Mark turned to Microsoft Azure and the Ed-Fi Alliance.Optimizing districts through a streamlined data platformUpon joining the Arizona DOE, it became Mark’s responsibility to get over one million students and 65,000 teachers the resources they needed, when they needed them, while sustaining accountability to 664 local education agencies and another five million parents and legal guardians. With every student, school, and district generating hundreds of thousands of data transactions every day, Mark and his team of 135 employees covered tens of millions of transactions every year while building a new one capable of billions of annual transactions. For years, every district, agency, and department generated and maintained their own databases, which led to inconsistent and inaccurate reports.

“This exists in every state,” Mark explains. “They have silos that don’t talk to each other. They all create their own data, so when I showed up there were fifty different databases and every one of them was being enriched by someone else. If the senators asked for student data from three different places, they’d get three different numbers.”

These reports monitor 14 years’ worth of data—ACT scores, enrollment, budgets, and more—and Mark’s Microsoft Azure and Ed-Fi-based solution unified those previously-siloed data streams into a single dashboard. This not only streamlined the DOE’s data reporting and management systems but made sure schools received exactly the right reimbursements based on their student populations.

Azure has allowed data processing run time to go from multiple days to three to five hours. The district is now processing more transactions nightly and reached nearly 500 million transactions within the first four months of going live. Automated processing has also seen marked improvement. Several processes that used to take 11 hours and 20 minutes to complete have now been completed in 47 minutes, a 93 percent reduction in time. Between the new data infrastructure and the saved processing time, the state is estimated to save upwards of $40 million in staff time at local schools alone.Empowering educators to make the most of dataBut the Arizona DOE’s transformation required more than just replacing old tools and streamlining their data platform. It also meant empowering teachers and state vendors to make the most of their analytics and creating user-friendly reports that could reach stakeholders from Arizona’s unique mix of Caucasian, Hispanic, and Native American communities.

Technology from the Ed-Fi Alliance allows school districts to surface their data, like attendance and discipline records or assessment scores, so that educators can track and monitor student and teacher performance and trends. Together with Microsoft Azure, Mark and his team have applied the Ed-Fi API to better leverage data statewide. Mark and the Arizona DOE’s commitment to transformation has not only changed the resources educators have on hand but the way teachers and administrators think about data on a daily basis.

“People are afraid of data,” Mark explains. “They’re afraid that it’ll be used against them, so the key is to make it non-threatening. We built a system that allows a teacher to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. If you can help teachers become high performers, then you help students.”

With these resources in place, teachers and district leaders can now instantly access a particular student’s records, including that student’s strengths and weaknesses—something that previously took teachers months to establish. That access to student data equips teachers to meet students where they are—to play to each student’s strengths with specific teaching strategies. In other words, more data means smarter lesson plans, more engaged students, and happier parents.

The resources Mark and his team have built are available for any state looking to improve teaching and learning through data. As these tools continue to evolve, he hopes to grow those solutions into a system that matches teaching styles with students’ preferred methods of learning—a system similar to the CRM solutions businesses use to market and sell their services.

“The challenge that CIOs have to face is how to break the barriers between themselves, legislators, and governors, to make this state’s vision an objective,” Mark says. “We’ve done a lot of learning alongside Microsoft, and it’s worked out magnificently.”

Since joining the Arizona Department of Education, Mark and his team have not only rebuilt the department’s analytics and reporting solutions but helped the state’s districts and charters balance their annual budgets. No more last-minute loans or uninformed decisions means Arizona’s teachers and students have the resources they need to succeed.

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