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Chapter 5—Building State-District Relationships

Why are state-district relationships so important, especially in the case of LDS development? Why are such relationships beneficial to both states and districts? How does a good relationship improve the quality and usefulness of the LDS? How can these relationships be forged and fostered? How can states get districts to buy into the process? This section offers best practices and insight from the states on these issues.

Building Bridges and Gaining LEA Buy-in

As discussed earlier, LDS development should involve all stakeholders (see chapter 4). Districts are an important part of this group and their engagement is vitally important to the creation of a successful, statewide LDS. In some situations, a culture shift may be needed to move to a more inclusive, collaborative environment. A strong relationship between a state and its districts offers many advantages in the development and use of LDSs, whether the systems are statewide or built locally to serve district or regional needs. Too often, the relationships between states and districts are very limited, and collaboration is an unfamiliar, even unwelcome idea. Communication barriers between these levels often have serious consequences, including mistrust or frustration, poor data quality, misunderstandings, or the establishment of unrealistic or unachievable requirements.

The benefits of a good district–state relationship flow both ways. State agencies developing statewide LDSs can gain tremendous insight from local leaders, who can benefit from sharing their knowledge by getting a system that better meets their needs and makes their work more efficient and effective. Districts interested in building their own, local LDS may learn from the state. And the opposite may be true: local districts may have a more sophisticated system than the state's and can share their experiences with their state counterparts. In either case, state and local agencies should work together to build a single system, or systems that will work together, to serve common goals, facilitate simple data transfer, and create only one version of the "truth." (DQC 2006a)

magnifying glass icon Keeping districts in mind:
Considerations for state and regional
agencies building an LDS
  • Consider the varying needs of your districts. Be flexible enough to serve both large and small districts, as well as districts with varying degrees of experience with data systems.
  • Consider the extra burden being placed on districts to report data elements.
  • Involve districts in the entire process. Find out what local leaders need from an LDS.
    • What questions need to be answered at the district-, school-, and classroom levels? What data are needed to answer them?
    • What access is needed at the district-, school-, and classroom-levels?
    • What reports and tools will help local staff do their jobs better?
  • Consider interoperability with existing systems in districts in terms of standards and common definitions.
  • Consider the possibility of providing added value back to districts as incentive to use the system (for example, combining the state-hosted student information system with the LDS).
  • How will the LDS address the need to collect and analyze local assessment data over time? (These assessments can be unique to schools and districts.)
  • How will districts exchange student records (for example, release to a transfer student's new district)?

With a statewide LDS project, states should think of districts as partners, rather than as customers. As such, the LDS should be conceptualized and developed not as something that districts simply need to comply with, but as a valuable tool that will benefit both the state and the districts. The state should think of districts not only as providers of data, but also as users who will benefit from data sharing and access. And conversely, districts should not think of the state only as a collector of data, but also as a provider of useful information. This sort of state–district partnership can be cultivated in several ways.

Engage LEAs early

Ideally, local education agencies (LEA) will buy into the LDS development process because they see its value, and their involvement will be voluntary. State communication with districts about the LDS should be framed in terms of its value to the districts, and local engagement should be encouraged as early in the process as possible.

For example, district representatives should be included from the start in committees or working groups focused on LDS oversight and development. Small states may seek to include all districts in this process, while larger ones might choose a sample group of diverse, representative districts. In this process, states should try to gauge districts in terms of expertise and the time they will have to help with the project. States may also involve districts in the grant-writing process or the RFP committee, both to get them engaged and to gain input. District representatives should also be involved in the state's data governance process. In terms of data collection, for example, when a state proposes the collection of a new data element, participating LEA representatives will be able to offer input. The state may also ask all of its districts for feedback. Ample time should be allowed for response, perhaps up to a year prior to the collection of the new element. This way, the LEAs will know what is coming well in advance, and their feedback can be incorporated to make data collection as smooth as possible.

Moreover, ask local representatives what kinds of questions they want answered (see chapter 5 of Book One: What is an LDS?). Additionally, how do they want the data returned to them? What information will most alleviate their pain points? Along the way, find out what the districts think of certain aspects of the system. For instance, in the portal or business intelligence tool development phase of the project, what types of tools will be most useful? How can certain reports be made more useful or user friendly? Flashy tools are nice, but simple low-tech improvements that save time are often hugely appreciated and can strengthen support for the project.

Respond to LEA feedback with action

Many states cite the importance of not only soliciting and considering LEA feedback, but also responding with action. For instance, if districts say some areas of the data collection are problematic, the state might seek ways to resolve the issue by adjusting the collection, making it optional, or even eliminating it if necessary. Districts should not feel ignored; this can lead to alienation and even cynicism and mistrust. However, while state agencies should be responsive to districts, they should also strike a balance and make only promises they can keep, offering a realistic view of what can be accomplished in both the short- and long-terms. All parties will benefit from an open and frank relationship.

Return the data to the district

Districts submit large quantities of data to states. This responsibility can be burdensome and may seem without reward. State agencies should strive to quickly return data to the districts in a useful form. If the districts are able to review and use the data for analysis, or see them in reports that show comparisons among schools and districts within the state, this reinforces their importance as more than just a troublesome requirement. Showing the districts how the data are used, and giving them a chance to use the information for their own needs, is an excellent incentive for cooperation from the districts, encouraging them to devote more energy to submitting high quality data. States can enhance this incentivation by seeking to collect data that the districts find most useful.

Maintain district engagement

District involvement should continue throughout the development process. Some states have brought some or all districts into the product testing phase by conducting pilot studies with them. Districts get a chance to try the system and give feedback to the state. One large state, for instance, included 10 percent of its districts in one such study. Continued engagement should also be sought through regular communications, as well as through training and feedback sessions that cover system uses and benefits.

In such training, district staff can be shown why it is vital they provide the necessary data accurately and on time. Some states have also strengthened their relationships with districts through financial means. According to the Data Quality Campaign (DQC 2006b), providing funds, perhaps by earmarking a percentage of state funds for districts to support infrastructure development, has been a source of good will. In some cases, when buy-in is not forthcoming and districts are resistant, states may seek ways to incentivize data quality and timely submission of data. One approach that has been considered is tying funding to data quality and timely submission. Other states have had high-level executives send letters to districts stressing the data's importance.

Strategies to facilitate state–district communication

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Having existing relationships between the state and districts prior to the start of an LDS project is, of course, better than starting from scratch. Some state agencies have program area staff who already have close working relationships with the districts. They have leveraged these relationships in building the different pieces of the system in order to meet the needs of the program areas and the districts. These staff members now serve as intermediaries with the districts.

Such history may be ideal, but many states and districts do not have these working ties, and any connections they do have can stand to be strengthened. States pursue various strategies to bridge this divide, but regular communication is fundamental. Some periodically send a newsletter to the districts, discussing specific data issues and reviewing progress and successes in the state's LDS development. Others hold regular conference calls, online sessions, and face-to-face meetings with district staff. Small states should consider face-to-face meetings with districts, while larger ones may find it more feasible to work with regions rather than with many individual districts. Districts also vary in their capacity to participate in such efforts, both in terms of expertise and time, so states should try to assess their districts and be flexible.

Communication with staff from all levels should be sought so that a consistent view of what is happening in the state is shared by everyone. The least informed groups can be the biggest challenge because they do not understand the issues involved. Thus, educating these groups is vital. In general, educating as many people as possible is essential because a single individual may not disseminate information to any of his or her colleagues.

Districts should also be represented on committees, advisory boards, and working groups; this will help spread knowledge and facilitate communication about data issues, as well as build relationships among staff and other stakeholders. States might also facilitate communication by making it easier to contact staff members. One state, for instance, is creating a data area-specific directory of district and state staff that will make it easier for the different agencies to communicate with one another. The directory will also identify which staff are in charge of which data areas, allowing questions to be directed to the right people and increasing efficient communication.

Another option is to use a third party to bring districts and the state together. One state used a consulting firm to help forge and strengthen its SEA/LEA relationships.