Centralizing Data to Drive Student Outcomes with James Stoffer

Collecting it is the easy part – and there’s a ton of it – but then what? 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

James Stoffer has spent his career in edtech, building familiarity with both the K-12 software industry and the people who use its products, from district leaders to school staff, teachers, parents, students, and community partners.

He joined Abre as President and CEO in 2021, succeeding the founder who launched the education management platform in 2018. He honed his experience in revenue growth and customer-focused execution as an executive in sales, customer experience, and business operations at DreamBox Learning as well as in previous leadership positions at Hobsons and MasteryConnect.

“The name Abre means ‘open’ in Spanish,” Stoffer says. “It highlights our company’s central value proposition that any and all data can be integrated into the platform and used to connect the learning community – because without engaging all the stakeholders in students’ lives, especially their families, schools’ ability to make evidence-based decisions and drive better outcomes is limited.”

‘…any and all data can be integrated into the platform and used to connect the learning community…’

Stoffer describes the platform as families’ one-stop-shop for announcements, permission slips, partner program enrollment, and payments. Teachers and staff can log on to a single tool to see academic, wellness, attendance, and other trends over time. Administrators can visualize data at the district and building levels to determine impactful resource allocation and to expand successful initiatives. Community partners can see how well their programs are benefiting students—and staff can take this information into account when making funding decisions. And last but definitely not least, students can define personalized goals and track progress toward them in areas such as academics, career readiness, and social-emotional skill building.

What are the biggest challenges school districts face when collecting, analyzing, and leveraging data to support the whole child?

They don’t have a challenge collecting a ton of data. But where is it stored? And for what purpose? How does it come together in a way that can be acted upon? There’s not a lot of confident action – and I use the word confident intentionally – because there’s a lot of action, and decisions are being made, but perhaps too much in the fog.

‘They don’t have a challenge collecting a ton of data. But where is it stored? And for what purpose? How does it come together in a way that can be acted upon?’

Because there’s a lot of action, there are a lot of programs that generate more data, but there’s not a good feedback loop on what’s working and what’s not working in those silos, so what it ultimately comes down to are test scores and feelings. Test scores are quantitative, and everything else is qualitative – and therein lies the difficulty.

We talk with a lot of school districts where they’re not really confident in the decisions they’re making tied to their strategic plan, and therefore they only review strategic plan progress once a year, at a superintendent evaluation period.

When districts want to implement a data analysis solution, or DAS, what are some of the hurdles they face?

First and foremost, outsourcing data management is relatively rare. They’ll often buy a data dashboard product that doesn’t come with the level of flexibility, malleability, or customization they need for their strategic plan, their district, their students, their community, and their staff. They’re still left with just as many questions as before.

An alternative is creating your own data warehouse and buying your own business intelligence tool that sits on top of it. But it’s really expensive to hire data scientists and data analysts, and it’s too cost prohibitive to get every one of your stakeholders access to see the data in the dashboards to make decisions.

Many districts have incredibly expensive legacy systems that were built for company users, not learning community users. So they need customization, but customization is really expensive. Our solution is to provide the level of customization where you outsource a turnkey solution to our data scientists, who build it within your instance by consolidating all your data in an outsourced data warehouse. It’s affordable – and it’s way faster than doing it yourself.

We start with the end in mind when it comes to data visualizations. We ask what questions you are looking to provide answers to, and for whom within your organization – not just in the executive cabinet, but throughout the entirety of your organization. Then we build to that.

‘We ask what questions you are looking to provide answers to, and for whom within your organization – not just in the executive cabinet, but throughout the entirety of your organization. Then we build to that.’

Where do you think the industry is getting it wrong in terms of how district leaders are holding edtech companies accountable? How can we move things forward in a more effective way? I’m getting at topics that may be sensitive, like usage and consumption-based pricing models.

Even before that, there are questions that need to be asked. Beyond usage and consumption and fidelity and all that good stuff, how can you take your data and juxtapose it or overlay it or combine it or synthesize it with some of your other initiatives?

How many people are logging into a given tool? How many people are using it? What’s the time spent per user? What’s the academic outcome? And is it actually moving the needle beyond an academic outcomes perspective? Keep in mind that an academic outcome may have nothing to do with why you’re logging into an LMS. Maybe you just lost a parent because of the pandemic and now you’re mentally struggling. Is a learning platform going to pull all of that data in?

There’s so much qualitative data that you have to try to make more quantitative. And then you need to synthesize it all together in a way that’s very customized to your district.

I think that – rightfully so – curriculum instruction and assessment companies are being held a little bit more accountable to their claims. But I don’t think there would be one district administrator who would sit here and say, “Because we bought that one Learn to Read product for our pre-K, K, and first-graders, that sole product is the sole reason why our math and our English scores on our end of year tests moved.” What about the teacher? What about the parents? What about the unit? We have so many other variables that go into student success, especially if you start talking about the non-tested subjects and initiatives like Portrait of a Graduate. And that’s back to the feelings-based approach to where you’re putting your time-talent-treasure maps against your strategic plan.

‘What about the teacher? What about the parents? What about the unit? We have so many other variables that go into student success, especially if you start talking about the non-tested subjects…’

Now that you mentioned it, how does Abre support districts looking to launch a portrait of a graduate initiative?

Communities love Portrait of a Graduate initiatives, but ultimately, how do you collect data around it and track it? How do you know if it’s working or not? At the front end, how do you collect skills acquisition that is not tested? How do you collect the connections between experience and outcomes that aren’t related to a tested subject? How do you analyze and track progress against those that require soft skills and those that don’t? Is there a direct correlation with the tested skills?

Typically, districts say, “We leave it up to the teachers to do the collection.” However, any data that’s collected at the teacher level and aggregated up to a school level, or a district level, or even a community level for a strategic plan will have woefully different interpretations and woefully different systems of collection.

Some districts do have a process for centrally collecting this data. More often than not, that system is something like Google Drive, which isn’t scalable. Let’s say they are collecting artifacts against students’ progress in an area as simple as communication skills. But how do you know it’s working if you’re not combining that data with outcome data?

Looking ahead, how do you see data management in K-12 evolving over the next five to 10 years?

There’s going to be a lot more focus from vendors around the concept of consolidation. You’re going to see more of a student success angle and a whole child angle because the non-academic stuff is not going away anytime soon. It was already there pre-pandemic, but now you see headlines all the time talking about attendance, behavior and discipline, mental health, and social-emotional learning and well-being. District administrators have far more appreciation of those than ever before.

Within data management, there will be a lot of really good data platforms that do something similar to what we do. But the bigger point, a differentiator for us, is helping districts collect all types of data. Another data management platform might pull together silos and visualize them. But Portrait of a Graduate is a prime example of how we can collect truly meaningful data – not just bring in collected data to then put in a dashboard.

You’re going to see data warehouse vendors get into the data management space, because more and more districts have created more and more data. You’re going to find districts who want to do it themselves – that’s not going to slow down anytime soon. They’re going to spend a lot of money, a lot of frustration, and a lot of hours trying to pull it off.

‘You’re going to find districts who want to do it themselves – that’s not going to slow down anytime soon. They’re going to spend a lot of money, a lot of frustration, and a lot of hours trying to pull it off.’

And then you’re going to see more of the modern type of data products like us, where we are a data platform focused not just on the downstream data visualization by creating an easier way of warehousing all your silos, but starting to consolidate the tech into an actual stack or an ecosystem. 

Victor Rivero is Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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