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You say Data Standards, I say Data Standards… October 24, 2009

Posted by ajackl in Department of Education, Education, Enterprise Architecture, Schools Interoperability Framework, SIF, Standards, Technical.
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How many different versions are there of data standards? There is a lot of talk nowadays about data standards in the education space and the need for data standards. The Gates Foundation have become standard bearers of that cause (Sorry- couldn’t help myself!). Secretary Duncan has said it is one of the key parts to education reform. There is a great cry and hue for National Data Standards. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) both are pushing for state-lead leadership in this domain and emphasizing its importance, and CCSSO is driving the national academic content standards on bahalf of the Chiefs and in partnership with all the majopr players. I couldn’t agree more with this emphasis. I have given much of my recent life to empower and support data standards of all kinds. However, I find myself in many conversations where people use the term “data standards” and I find myself quoting Inigo Montoya from _The Princess Bride_:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!”

There are many kinds of standards. To begin a conversation for, ahem, standardizing on some we need to start by determining what kinds of standards we are talking about. In this post I will start listing some standards. I started thinking about this topic newly when my friend BethAnn from Virginia’s Department of Education disturbed our post-conference-session drinks with the question of “What do we mean by standards?”.

There are many ways to think about that. One way is to think about “de facto” standards versus “de jure” standards vs specifications. I think it is important to recognize which ones we are talking about.

De jure” standards are standards set by law, by some authoritative body that has a mandate and the power to say how it goes. In the National Data Standards movement we need to be cautious that we are clear that we are not creating a mandate but an agreement by consensus. If people perceive that the United States Department of Education (USED) is telling them how they need to do their data systems, many will dig their heels in and it differently only because they can. On the other hand, if USED does not take a stand and display leadership then many will not take it seriously. It is a difficult balance we will need to strike. The “http” and IEEE standards are good examples of technical “De Jure” standards as are the various state’s academic content standards.

In fact “De facto” standards are what we need- standards that arise out of use and agreement as THE way to do something not out of an authority but rather out of consensus. That, unfortunately, will require a great deal of communication and more bandwidth between users, state education agencies (SEAs), and local education agencies (LEAs), and vendors than exists right now. The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) specification has become in fact, in many ways, a “De Facto standards for interoperability in the k12 space, as the Postsecondary Electronics Standard Council (PESC) has become for post-secondary education. The NCES Handbooks are another example of this kind of standard.

Specifications are “a” standard way to do something rather than “the” way. SIF, PESC, and Dublin Core are all examples of specifications. These are easier to pull together but less likely to get adoption because of the lack of authority. This gets blurry when some states start to mandate SIF for example and thus essentially turn the specification into a “De Jure” standard.

So that is one lens to view standards through. I wonder what the dictionary has to say… according to Merriam-Webster Online 2009:

Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French estandard banner, standard, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English standan to stand and probably to Old High German hart hard
Date: 12th century

Interesting – so we need to stand hard.

1 : a conspicuous object (as a banner) formerly carried at the top of a pole and used to mark a rallying point especially in battle or to serve as an emblem

It could be argued that this conversation is a rallying point in the battle for education reform!

2 a : a long narrow tapering flag that is personal to an individual or corporation and bears heraldic devices b : the personal flag of the head of a state or of a member of a royal family c : an organization flag carried by a mounted or motorized military unit d : banner 1

Unfortunately some of the players jockeying to control the National Standards Movement have this in mind rather than the good of education in this country! No, dear reader, of course I am not talking about you!

3 : something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example : criterion
4 : something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality

Pretty clear.

5 a : the fineness and legally fixed weight of the metal used in coins b : the basis of value in a monetary system

Nope. Not this one.

6 : a structure built for or serving as a base or support

This is my favorite- we are building the national data standards as a structure built for or serving as a base or support.

7 a : a shrub or herb grown with an erect main stem so that it forms or resembles a tree b : a fruit tree grafted on a stock that does not induce dwarfing.
8 a : the large odd upper petal of a papilionaceous flower (as of the pea) b : one of the three inner usually erect and incurved petals of an iris

Ahem. I really didn’t know what to write about this one! 🙂 We certainly don’t want to induce dwarfing in our education system.

9 : a musical composition (as a song) that has become a part of the standard repertoire

We can all sing along!!!

Okay. That was fun. But that isn’t even the end of it. There are also different domains of standards.
SIF is an interoperability standard – it creates a blueprint describing how educational data can be moved from one system to another. PESC is the same except its scope is postsecondary, and SIF’s scope is K12.

The NCES Handbooks and the National Education Data Model (NEDM) are content standards. Although NEDM is more of an aggregation of all the standards and data sets out there than a standard itself.

The standards about what a student must know, or the assessment benchmarks that a student must hit are curriculum or academic content standards.

There is a lot of confusion about these different domains and when we are speaking in this national dialogue it is important that we are clear which domain, type and definition we are using.

It is my commitment that we will do this – and that what we build together as we start to build the National Data Standards is clear and that our approach is, well, standardized.

More later. Stay tuned.. same standard time, same standard channel.

Comments»

1. Nancy - October 25, 2009

What is ‘is?’

ajackl - October 25, 2009

I was going to move into the deeper distinctions of data standards in following posts but as usual you are taking us right into the deep waters… 🙂

2. Lara Moritz - October 26, 2009

This is a fascinating conversation and one that needs to take place. The consensus around standards is difficult to build but is critical to efficiently more forward.

This issue is not just an educational data issue either. This issue spans domains globally, not the least of which is software and hardware.

Thank you for bringing up the topic Alex. I look forward to reading more.

3. Georgiana - November 9, 2009

Hey Alex,
I find this conversation interesting and wonder if you could discuss the “why” of the standards? Are they to define or align expectations in US education? If so, in what realm – student expectations, teacher expectations, system expectations?

Another question that came to me from a discussion with Jean around some pilot work in healthcare – these pilots have created a hospital in which doctors aren’t compensated in a fee for service format, but rather by salary with bonus incentives around patient outcomes.

I began to wonder if there is work going on to define standard desired outcomes for school systems and if so, if there are any areas where teams of teachers and administrators are given an incentive bonus for particular student outcomes?

Just some thoughts… hope you are well and thanks for being part of this important work.

4. Standards: Why and What? « Reading the Tea Leaves - November 11, 2009

[…] Why and What? My good friend Georgianna asked me a series of question in her comments to my post. They were great questions so I decided to blog on […]


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