Data processing failures spur plans to overhaul Wyoming Department of Education

Jun 7, 2013

Credit Wyoming Department of Education

Recent leadership and policy changes have caused upheaval in the Wyoming Department of education, but the collection and processing of data has been insufficient for years. An audit of the WDE’s Information Management unit is showing that there are major flaws in the system, and that an overhaul of the department is in order. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez reports.

MARTINEZ: The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee heard the findings of a report by RTI International, the private auditing group that was hired to assess the Wyoming Department of Education’s ability to collect, maintain and provide information about Wyoming schools. RTI found a lot of internal problems, specifically with the Information Management – or IM – unit’s ability to meet data processing demands. The report found that has an incomplete strategic plan, weak technology standards, and an ineffective organizational structure.

Representative Matt Teeters co-chairs the Joint Education Committee. He says he suspected these problems, but that the WDE can’t continue this way.

REP. MATT TEETERS: Data really is the lifeblood of the Department of Education. They’re primarily a compliance agency, and they primarily collect information. And if we don’t the ability to do that, we don’t have the ability to function properly.

MARTINEZ: The data – enrollment, attendance, test scores – that pass through the department’s IM unit are critical in making decisions about school resources, staffing and funding. Last summer, WDE briefly released incorrect federal Annual Yearly Progress numbers for many Wyoming schools before recalling and correcting them.

RJ Kost is the curriculum coordinator in Park County School District 1. He says errors in collection or release of data could have real consequences for schools.

RJ KOST: You know it could affecting funding, depending on what the reports are and the number of students involved with certain courses help determine the amount of money that’s funded for those particular courses, which obviously would be a direct effect on student education, so I think we have to be careful to make sure that we’re accurately reporting, to protect them.

MARTINEZ: Kost also says Department of Education requires schools to submit different reports in different formats that often duplicate information. He says it takes more time and man power on his end to file all the reports that WDE requests, which he thinks could be streamlined if the department were more organized.

KOST: The people working for the WDE are really trying to do the best job for the students in the state of Wyoming, but, unfortunately, sometimes the right and the left hand haven’t communicated very well.

MARTINEZ: They have a tough job to do. Federal reporting standards and technology change often and are hard to keep up with. There was some staff turnover when Superintendent Cindy Hill was elected in 2010.

And that same year, the State of Wyoming created the Department of Enterprise Technology Services, a sort of centralized Information Technology department that serves all state agencies. ETS absorbed about half of the WDE’s IM unit. The plan was not to hinder the Department of Education, but Alan Moore says that’s what it did.

Before he became a data research analyst at Laramie County School District 1 two years ago, he was the director of the Standards and Assessment Unit at the Department of Education. He says many of the people he’s seen move from the I-M unit to ETS were not general IT experts.

ALAN MOORE: WDE lost quite a few people with pretty deep expertise and institutional knowledge, so that has been a problem, and I don’t think that capacity has been replaced, both in terms of the number of people that it requires, and also in the skill set of the people that are there.

MARTINEZ: So the I-M Unit is understaffed and disorganized, but maintains the same work load… And that workload is about to grow immensely, when new state accountability measures go in to full effect. Moore says it would be impossible for the current I-M unit to handle the influx of data needed to rank schools, teachers and administrators across the state.

The RTI report advised the WDE to hire three positions immediately.

State Superintendent Cindy Hill says she feels vindicated, as she fought against losing IM staff to the ETS consolidation.

CINDY HILL: I told the governor on several occasions that we’d be shorthanded and that we needed to keep these positions, plus others. So, I just… It’s perplexing to me that we’re having this conversation.

MARTINEZ: The Joint Education Committee has asked the governor to put off absorbing any more I-M staff into ETS for the time being. The Department of Education has until the end of July to submit its budget plan for 2015-16 biennium… and reorganize the department’s entire staffing structure.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.