How Big Data Can Answer Big Questions about School Spending in Utah

The Utah State Auditor’s Office explains how to ask better questions about school spending

Where does the money go in public education? And how is that money being spent? These two questions prompted the Office of the State Auditor to create Project KIDS (Key Integrated Data Systems), which will help Utah school districts make data-driven decisions about how they spend their money. And BYU McKay School’s Educational Leadership and Foundations department is collaborating with the state auditor to explore ways to effectively use this data.

At an EdLF-sponsored event last month, state auditor John Dougall said in Utah’s current education system, money generally doesn’t make a difference because schools don’t align dollars directly with accomplishments. “My belief, though, is money does make a difference when applied in the right place in the right manner with the right accountability,” said Dougall. “And I do believe in the long run, money will make a difference in public education.”  

From left to right: John Dougall, Utah State Auditor; David Stringfellow, Chief Economist; Aaron Shirley, Research Analyst; and Anne Nollet, Research Analyst.
From left to right: John Dougall, Utah State Auditor; David Stringfellow, Chief Economist; Aaron Shirley, Research Analyst; and Anne Nollet, Research Analyst.   

The goal of Project KIDS is to take mass amounts of data from every school district and charter school in Utah and synthesize them in a helpful way for education leadership. Project KIDS will help schools better track where their money is going, and if the outcomes of their spending align with their goals. 

But how does the Project KIDS team make sense of such a large and varied data set that includes everything from teacher compensation to test scores to school lunches? This is where big data analytics comes in. 

Big data refers to data sets that are too large or too complex to process with traditional software and thus require advanced analytic techniques (i.e., big data analytics). However, how one uses big data is more important than how big the data is: analyzing big data can bring to light trends or patterns that weren’t apparent before. And while other states have been using big data analytics for education, Utah will be the first to use big data to look at different levels of spending.  

Research analyst and BYU alumna, Anne Nollet, said that right now, education data exists in different places managed by different people. “We hope to bring it all together to one comprehensive data resource that districts and other stakeholders can use to make better decisions.” Nollet then said they will visualize the data in interactive dashboards (think beautifully designed bar graphs and pie charts). Her hope is the dashboards will be user-friendly and stakeholders won’t have to be data scientists to understand them. 

One such dashboard is called “Spending per Student.” Users can see average spending per student, as well as how much the school spends on a specific student when they search by ID number. Users can also look at specific groups of students—low-income, ELL (English Language Learners), special needs—and see if those students are getting the resources they need. 

Anne Nollet in front of dashboards
Research analyst Anne Nollet in front of sample dashboards that break down education spending. 

Another dashboard is “School Comparison.” Dougall emphasized schools would only be compared to their peer schools. In a sample dashboard, a user could see that while school A spent more per student, school B had consistently better scores. Users could also see how much schools spend on specific subjects; school A spends more on general education, whereas school B puts more money toward individual subjects. 

The goal of this tool, however, is not to judge how schools are spending their money, as explained by Nollet. “We’re not trying to make any judgment with this tool. We're hoping that the school district personnel and other stakeholders . . . can use the data to start asking better questions, maybe finding a trend that they didn't even know existed because they've never looked at it that way.”

The auditor’s office is collaborating with the McKay School, as EdLF assistant professor Donny Baum explained. “Most of their team members have training in economics, statistics, and quantitative analysis in general, but they are looking for further insight specific to education and education policy,” said Baum. EdLF faculty offer expertise, and Baum hopes to do that through internships for education policy graduate students and formal research collaboration for faculty members. 

The next step for Project KIDS is to collect and organize data from the remaining Utah school districts and charter schools within the next year. After that, the auditor’s office wants to make these dashboards available to school districts and then to secondary stakeholders like researchers, advocacy groups, legislators, and eventually, the public. Dougall explained that because of the sensitive nature of some of the data, they will have to anonymize and aggregate the data before it is available publicly. 

“Behind every data point, there's a story,” said Nollet. “We live in a world of big data. It's out there, it's not changing. We're collecting more and more data. We want to help the school districts get on board with that and start using the data they're collecting.” 

 

Writer: Anessa Pennington
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922