Published: March 14, 2024

School districts generate an incredible amount of data on student learning. The rate of data generation has increased dramatically over the last two decades, encompassing attendance, grades, behavior, surveys, and various assessments. Despite this wealth of information, educators often struggle to use it effectively.

"Data rich, information poor."

This is the pain we hear over and over from districts as we ask about how they use the data in their school system.

What does this actually mean? For K12 districts, it signifies the challenge of converting vast amounts of data into actionable insights. For example, translating hundreds of thousands of student attendance records into digestible trends around chronic absenteeism (the insights) and then designing and implementing data-driven plans to get more students in school (the action). 

Why Is Using Data So Challenging?

The challenge for schools starts with a combination of insufficient resources and limited access to talent that precludes in-house builds. Some of the most data-driven organizations in the world (for profit and not for profit) build internal capacity, but it takes time and resources to develop infrastructure. The salary demands of data scientists in the tech industry, often comparable to those of a school superintendent, make it difficult for school districts to attract talent and develop cutting-edge tools internally.

The edtech market has attempted to step up and address this deficit, but there are still significant gaps based on what schools need. Over the past two decades, a number of companies have emerged aiming to provide accessible data tools for education, both regionally and nationally. Some have significantly impacted the K12 educational ecosystem and added real value. But keeping pace with technological advancements is onerous, especially for those companies established over a decade ago. The explosion in the breadth and depth of data generated over the past decade, fueled by the digitization of the classroom, has led to a rapid evolution in the capabilities required by districts. Legacy tools have been unable to keep pace with this seismic shift.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, districts have oscillated between building in-house data capacity and tapping legacy products to address their data needs.

The Evolution of Data Tools in K12 Districts

Our team observed common pathways that districts follow when seeking effective data utilization. In a nutshell, there is a common trajectory through three distinct stages, each marked by different strengths and weaknesses with respect to data management:

Wave 1: Spreadsheets. Initially, either an existing staff member wearing multiple hats or a dedicated data analyst is tasked with manually downloading data from various systems, executing VLOOKUPs across spreadsheets, creating formulas, and generating charts. Often, this approach leads to burnout and creates bottlenecks.

  • Pros: Flexible, widely used tool already in use.
  • Cons: Time consuming, challenging to share reports across a large network.

Wave 2: Legacy Platforms. As the wear and tear of manual data work sets in, districts turn to software partners to automate data exports and analysis, trading some flexibility and autonomy for automated data exports, web portals, and out-of-the-box analysis. However, the scope of legacy platforms meant only having reports automated on a limited set of lagging indicators.

  • Pros: Managed environment, saves time, broader access.
  • Cons: Less customizable, dwindling customer support.

Wave 3: In-house Dashboards. After spending a few years with one software partner or another, the more innovative and leading schools began to crave more customization: self-defined metrics, analysis by different subgroups, filters, custom cut scores, and more.

While legacy platforms seemingly unlock capacity issues, the result is dashboards that answer fewer questions.

Districts with staff and resources move away from legacy providers and shift to homegrown data infrastructure. They invest in traditional BI (Business Intelligence) tools like Tableau so they can take control and build highly customized dashboards.

  • Pros: Customizable, more interactive.
  • Cons: Access for limited stakeholders, time and resource intensive to maintain, exposure to turnover risk.

Compromises Along the Road

Districts on this journey faced tough decisions, first trading the flexibility of spreadsheets for the efficiency of managed platforms, then later exchanging these platforms' embedded ease of use for the customization offered by BI tools. Some districts adopt a hybrid approach, piecing together elements from different tools, creating an intricate patchwork solution. Ultimately though, there is no free lunch: even the leading districts with in-house capabilities ultimately make trade-offs and sacrifices.


Feature / Capability

District Progression →
Wave 1: Spreadsheets Wave 2: Legacy Platforms

Wave 3: In-house BI

 Pre-built Integrations N/A Moderate Low
 Customizable Moderate Low High
Interactive Low Moderate Moderate
 Breadth of Stakeholder Access Low Moderate Low


The Trouble with Tableau

To be fair, it is not just a Tableau. It is PowerBI. Domo. Metabase. Any traditional BI tool. First, the pricing model for licensing just does not work for school districts. You could pay anywhere between $200 - $1K per year per seat. For example, licensing for 100 users might cost up to $50K annually, not including the time invested in developing these reports. The result is that only some people at the district office get seats, and maybe some building leaders, but these dashboards will never make it to teachers.

Tableau dashboards never see the light of day in the classroom.

More than pricing, the biggest concern is that when districts invest in Tableau, they end up spending the vast majority of their time maintaining the system. The level of effort required to maintain means there is no capacity for planning and developing additional ways of leveraging data, doing deep research, and creating those insights that everyone craves. 

Schools are treating traditional BI tools as the pinnacle of the data journey, when really they are only scratching the surface of capabilities.

The other issue is that while BI tools have been around for a while and have strong reporting capabilities, they are not really robust applications. You can view summary trends, but you cannot easily drill down into a comprehensive profile. You cannot trigger actions like sending an email to a student. You cannot add notes, draft intervention plans, tag students with concerns, or do any type of entering of data into Tableau. It is one directional information, without meaningful tools for taking the next step with the data.

School districts need solutions that transform their data into more than just insights—they need tools that catalyze real, tangible action.

Bridging the Gap with Schoolytics

Regardless of what stage K12 districts find themselves in, they continue to be unsatisfied with the data tools available. It seems like they have often abandoned hope that anyone could build the data platform that they need. "How could it possibly customize just to us?" "How can it be scaled out to all the stakeholders we have?" "How could one platform do more than just data dashboards?" "How could it take only a few days to make a new dashboard or add a dataset when it takes my other vendor 6-8 weeks?"

There is also the very real challenge of accepting the sunk cost, i.e., a reluctance to abandon a course of action because of a prior investment, even when a switch would ultimately be beneficial. "How can I abandon something I've invested in and worked so hard on?"

Our team at Schoolytics is here to the rescue.

By carefully listening to the needs of school districts and marrying those requirements with the most modern data capabilities in the industry, we have built the most powerful vertical data platform, purpose-built for education.

Feature / Capability  Pre-built Integrations High
 Customizable High
Interactive High
 Breadth of Stakeholders High


How did we accomplish building a platform that hits all these marks? Stay tuned for the more on the journey and how we built Schoolytics in my next blog post.


First installment of founder stories.

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