Best practices to ensure a successful reporting and education analytics initiative

Key lessons from higher education and K-12 institutions

By Georgia Mariani, SAS Global Industry Marketing Manager for Education

Is your K-12 or higher education institution investigating, planning to use, or actively using education analytics to turn its vast amounts of data into data-driven insight? Armed with the right information and reporting and analytics tools, education administrators at all levels can generate trusted knowledge that can be used to transform programs, curriculums, student outcomes and more.

But what’s the best way to get started? And how can you lay the right foundation for a successful education analytics initiative – one that delivers expected value?

To ensure the success of your analytic journey, learn from the experiences of our customers. They know firsthand how SAS® software can turn scattered data sources into timely, data-informed insights – and they have seen the power of these insights to improve performance, student success, outcomes and more. And through interviews and other sources, they have shared time-tested insights that can help you streamline and accelerate your organization’s evolution and maximize return on investment.

We’ve collected their advice and best practices in various white papers, recorded customer presentations, customer success stories and interviews – and we’re sharing key highlights through this series of insights articles. All are applicable to any organization. So let’s get started! Today we’ll discuss four keys for introducing and establishing an analytics program in education.

Secure strong executive sponsorship

To have a successful reporting and analytics initiative, you need more than just budget to purchase software. You also need to have executive sponsorship at the highest level – someone who fully understands the value the initiative can bring to the district or institution and has a vision for using it to improve school, program and student outcomes. This sponsor can play a vital role by:

  • Creating a vision around a student-centered, data-informed culture with increased accountability. Gaining the support of school leaders, such as principals, the central office staff, administration and departmental chairs, so that everyone understands the importance of making data-informed decisions.
  • Helping to eliminate “data jails” within departments by sharing his or her vision, addressing concerns about losing control of protected data, getting buy-in from colleagues to share data and navigating political issues that can quickly derail a project.
  • Determining what information will be “kept in front of the curtain” (i.e., made public) and what data must be protected and secured.

Effective executive sponsors will also provide what they call “felt leadership,” meaning they are fully engaged and accessible. This builds momentum for the growing use of reporting and analytics by staff members at all levels. Felt leadership includes:

  • Regularly attending key meetings about data requirements and desired metrics to learn how a district, college or department plans to use reporting and analytics to improve student outcomes and enhance operational effectiveness.
  • Communicating the vision and value of reporting and analytics broadly, regularly and positively.
  • Leading by example and encouraging the use of reporting and analytics.

Identify and involve stakeholders early and assess their unique needs

In both K-12 and higher education, you’ll have a wide variety of potential users, ranging from school board members to government bodies, media, parents and the general public – each with different skill sets and reporting requirements. Before experts can create desired reports, they need to know what kind of reporting users need, the detail level they prefer, visualization and more.

Sit with the top executives who are looking for information and get their feedback. Is this what they envision? Make sure the buy-in is already there from them.

– Sivakumar Jaganathan, Executive Director of Data Warehouse and Business Analytics, University of Connecticut

Identify and integrate authoritative, trusted data sources

Once you know what metrics and reports your stakeholders need, assess the data sources available to help you meet these needs. Most likely, data will be scattered across fragmented systems in different schools, departments and campuses in various formats and a multitude of systems, which can create overlap, gaps and inconsistencies. For example, if a student went to School A for three days and then went over to School B, and the records didn’t transfer efficiently, there would be double-counting of the student and report inaccuracies.

The very first thing that I think of whenever you ask me about best practices, is to "Know thy data." You have to know and understand the data you’re using to make sure that you use that data to make informed decisions instead of decisions with errors.  

– Gina Huff, Senior Applications Programmer Analyst, Western Kentucky University

You need to carefully determine the best sources to integrate within your data warehouse. Expect some heated debates, as data owners will have reasons why their data should be declared the official data.

To ensure that data is interpreted the same way by all stakeholders, develop data definitions as part of a data dictionary. To ensure data consistency and quality over time, establish a governance process for data validation and cleansing before it’s loaded into the data warehouse. The goal is to ensure that data is handled in a prescribed fashion, with human intervention handled by trained data stewards.

Manage expectations proactively

It’s not uncommon for stakeholders to view reporting and education analytics software as some kind of all-powerful magic; they can ask for anything and instantly get whatever they want, however they want it. Effective reporting and analytics require that you invest in significant data preparation, integration and planning before anyone can have useful reporting.

So when engaging with stakeholders – especially upper-level managers – listen actively to their wish lists, help them prioritize what’s most important to them and say “no” when you have to. Focus on what’s achievable now – and save the rest for mid- and long-range plans. By being open and honest about what you can deliver (and when), you can help people have realistic expectations (the key to having happy customers) and build their trust.

Determine the best way to process and deliver each report

It’s all too easy to start manually building reports and dumping them out there. For some people, the tendency is to create comprehensive, kitchen-sink solutions that are overwhelming to read and use. For others, the tendency is to create hundreds of reports, many of which aren’t designed to serve a specific stakeholder purpose.

As a best practice, find out what people truly need by performing a detailed needs analysis, and then scope reports based on your findings.

You need to understand the needs of the users. A best practice is to do a thorough needs analysis. What has a particular organization or a department asked for the last several years, what information they provided, what was the feedback – document it all.

– Sivakumar Jaganathan, Executive Director of Data Warehouse and Business Analytics, University of Connecticut

As part of this process, explore the following:

  • User types and expectations: For example, the president of a university or the superintendent of a K-12 district might need a high-level, interactive dashboard of KPIs with drill-down functionality. Professors and teachers might need to see select information relevant to their classes and individual students via simple, online reports.
  • Formatting and reporting priorities: When designing reports, present data using an easy-to-use, easy-to-understand, interactive format. As a general rule, include the 10 most important items for the target audience first and subsequent data in categorized layers within the report.
  • Access control requirements: Stakeholders should only be able to see what is relevant to them. So be sure to use software that supports granular, highly secure access controls.

The key to success is implementing a flexible reporting tool that can meet a wide range of user needs and expectations. Increasingly, this means going beyond the scope of typical static business intelligence platforms and moving to intelligent BI.

Different audiences need different types of reports and analytics across the institution. For example, our executive team is interested in revenue, enrollments and strategic planning data for the university as a whole. They need high-level, high-impact reports that tell a story. The deans and department heads are interested in the students in their college and department and what’s going on with them. So they need a mix of high-level, high-impact and detailed reports on students.

– Tuesdi Helbig, Director of Institutional Research, Western Kentucky University

SAS Visual Analytics helps you unlock insights and improve efficiency throughout your organization. It provides an interactive user experience that combines advanced data visualization, an easy-to-use interface and powerful in-memory technology. It also allows a wide variety of users to visually explore data, execute analytics and understand what data means. Then they can create and deliver reports wherever needed via the web, mobile devices or Microsoft Office applications. Thus, SAS Visual Analytics reduces the number of tools your teams must use – and the number of systems IT must maintain – to meet each user’s reporting needs.


Georgia Mariani

Georgia Mariani is the SAS Global Product Marketing Manager for the Education Industry. Mariani works with customers to share best practices, successes and recommendations that enable education institutions to get the most productive insights from their data.

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