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Chapter 11—Ensuring System Sustainability: Staying “There”

By definition, longitudinal data take years to amass. This means LDSs need to be around for a long time if they are going to fulfill their intended purposes and potential. The question then arises, what does it take to sustain these systems over the long haul? This chapter offers some basic strategies for the long-term, while the sections that follow focus on some specific solutions vital to winning broad and lasting commitment for your system, including marketing and relationship-building among the state and local education agencies.

Winning Early and Lasting Support

magnifying glass icon Generating the charter:
Action steps
  1. Get executives to sign off on the LDS.
  2. Establish goal(s)—articulate the business case for building the system.
  3. Identify the seed team.
  4. Develop a high-level timeline.
  5. Develop a high-level budget.
  6. Do the self-assessment; revisit charter; and re-examine the project's scope, budget, and timeline.

A sustainable system has broad and deep stakeholder support, as well as long-term commitments of funds and staff. If the system is to be a success, strong interest in the project is vital and should be built by using effective marketing and outreach to gain early support throughout the education community (see chapter 12). This is vital because legislators can provide needed resources and support. Agency executives will authorize system development and implementation. Staff will share responsibility for the system and have a stake in its success. And local administrators and teachers will use the system and come to rely on it for valuable information. This wide-ranging support will provide the foundation of a sustainable system.

Legislative support

Early on, the project should be promoted to legislators to explain the value of the planned system, establish expectations, and garner both political and financial support. Lawmakers can provide funding for the system; they can also pass legislation that supports the system by, for instance, writing its major tenets into law or mandating system compliance. Project leaders should determine what benefits should be emphasized to legislators and how to present them effectively. Whoever makes the proposal must have a broad understanding of the LDS and be ready to impart the right information. That is, they must understand what the legislators need to know—the purpose, potential benefits, and estimated costs of the system. In addition, they must understand what education specialists need, as well as basic technical details. They should make a compelling yet realistic proposal, taking care not to make promises that cannot be kept or set goals that cannot be reached. They should convey the big picture in plain language and avoid excessive detail, keeping in mind that their audience may not have expertise in education, let alone education data.

Additional sources of funds

In addition to relying on legislators for resource commitments, consider other sources of funding. As detailed by the Education Information Management Advisory Consortium (EIMAC 2007), potential sources of financial support for building and maintaining an LDS include

  • federal grants (e.g., Institute of Education Sciences Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems grants);
  • foundational support (e.g., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation);
  • separate program areas (assessment, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Limited English Proficient, Title I, etc.);
  • state-level technology bonds;
  • universities and higher education research institutions; and
  • business/private sources.

  • Define it.
  • Measure it.
  • Record it.
  • Publicize it.
  • Estimating costs

    According to some estimates, the development of a state-level LDS will cost around $1 million per year for three to five years. However, there are many variables that affect how much an LDS will cost an education agency. Research how much other agencies have spent on their systems or various components, keeping in mind any differences between your agencies, environment, and system requirements (see chapter 14). Some important factors that may affect system costs are:

    checkmark icon Starting point
    What does your education agency already have? Can parts of the existing system be modified or will you need to start from scratch? What infrastructure will you continue to use with the new system?
    checkmark icon Size
    How populated is your state or district? How many students and staff will the system follow?
    checkmark icon State laws
    Do mandates require the system have certain characteristics, such as implementation of an interoperability solution?


    District difference

    Estimating the cost of implementing an LDS may be more difficult for a district than a state agency because of several factors. For instance, districts have a relatively limited ability to learn from each other's experiences due to the lack of networks and means of collaboration that exist among states. Also, the number of districts developing an LDS within a state may be limited, yet the experiences of distant districts may not translate well across state lines. Further complicating the task is the wide variation that exists among districts in terms of size, circumstance, and needs. However, in most cases, the cost of a district LDS should be substantially less than a state's.

    checkmark icon Environment
    What is the existing level of communication and collaboration among districts, and between districts and the state? Establishing new lines of communication will take time and money. How uniform is your current system across districts and what standardization efforts will be required?
    checkmark icon Data demands
    How many users will need access to the data and what security demands will this access entail?
    checkmark icon Local costs
    If you are building a statewide system, what participation costs will be shouldered by the districts rather than the state?
    checkmark icon Scope
    Do you want a top-of-the line system or a basic one? How, and to whom, will the data be made available (agency staff, teachers, students, parents, researchers, etc.)? What data linkages will be created (to postsecondary institutions, workforce organizations, other agencies within the state, etc.)? Beware of costly scope creep.
    checkmark icon Procurement
    If you are building the system, what staff will work on the project and what additional staff or contractors will be required? If you buy, consider both vendor and in-house staff costs.
    checkmark icon Overlapping efforts
    In building infrastructure or developing system components, savings may result by working towards multiple goals in a single effort.
    checkmark icon Change
    Program changes, new definitions and updated standards, and the addition of new data elements may require programming changes and involve significant additional costs.
    checkmark icon Training and user support
    How many staff members will need to be trained to use the system and new tools, do data analysis, interpret results and reports, etc.? What user support will be necessary?
    checkmark icon Savings
    How much will the new system save? How will new efficiencies save staff time? What collections can be eliminated or streamlined by the new system? Weigh the benefits against the costs: over the long run, the benefits should amount to big savings.
    checkmark icon Maintenance
    The LDS will have not only startup costs, but ongoing maintenance costs as well. Who will maintain the system? A vendor or in-house staff? How often will hardware and software be updated? Who will update documentation?
    (EIMAC 2007a and EIMAC 2007b)

    Maintaining Long-Term Support

    Though LDS development is often referred to as a "project" (both in the real world and in this guide), it is much more than that. Whereas a project has an end, an LDS is ongoing and requires constant maintenance and enhancement. Implementation is just the beginning. Everyone involved should understand that achieving the system's benefits will take hard work and several years. Maintain excitement along the way by structuring the project around incremental stages with frequent milestones. Each intermediary achievement should be announced to the education community so that the results of their efforts and resources are apparent (see chapter 12): patience and determination are important, but everyone needs to see results once in a while or faith in, and commitment to, the system may wane.

    A successful LDS may outlast political leaders, so bridging administrations is also important. Different people value education data differently. Therefore, a new commissioner or a new governor can change the support for the project. Be flexible when new leadership with new agendas comes along (DQC 2006). At the same time, a deep commitment to the system across the education agency and the broader education community, as well as being able to show some actual benefits, will help sustain the LDS through changes at the helm.

    Establish early on how success will be measured. For example, a system may be deemed successful if it delivers high quality results within budget constraints and on time (see chapter 15). Document system successes such as new efficiencies and improvements in educational outcomes or processes, and use them in future requests for resources. Building a system with measurable deliverables and outcomes will make this possible. Education agency staff should also make an effort to win over new leaders to the importance and value of the LDS data. Brief them on system capabilities and equip them with data they need to prepare for meetings and make good decisions. One state's new commissioner, for example, wanted to meet with district representatives. Agency staff provided the commissioner with detailed data on each district he was to visit. This had two very important, far-reaching effects. It informed the commissioner and proved the usefulness of the data; and it demonstrated to districts that the data they report is actually used, giving them greater incentive to submit high quality data.