Focus on school data bolsters case for SIF

As little as a few years ago, the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)–a solution that allows school software applications from various vendors to share information seamlessly–was making slow headway in the nation’s schools, as many districts took a wait-and-see attitude before spending the money for SIF-certified systems and the hardware and software necessary to make them all work together.

But that’s beginning to change, thanks largely to an increased emphasis on data-driven decision making by federal and state officials. Spurred on by the constant need to track and report on student progress–and the promise of billions of dollars in federal stimulus money for states and schools that use data to improve instruction–a growing number of institutions are adopting SIF to facilitate this process, its creators say.

SIF started about 12 years ago, as school leaders began to realize that an inordinate amount of time was being spent duplicating work: Student information had to be entered into various applications by hand, or custom specifications had to be written to make the importing and exporting of data possible across these applications–wasting valuable IT staff time in managing those nightly or weekly imports and exports.

So a movement began to articulate a set of common definitions for school data and a set of rules for how these data can be shared. The force behind what is now called SIF was the Schools Interoperability Framework Association, or the SIF Association.

The SIF Association explains the common data definitions within the specifications it has created are called “data objects,” and these cover many items that are involved in schools. For example, a student’s name, address, and phone number are part of the “StudentPersonal” data object. Having different software programs understand this common definition of a student makes it possible for them to share this information properly. There are 89 different data objects currently defined, and additional data objects will be defined as the specification matures, the SIF Association says.

Part of the reason school leaders feel such a strong need for a blueprint that allows for diverse applications to interact is because school districts tend to purchase different software applications to fit a variety of needs.

“If you’re buying systems because they fit your needs the best–different systems for your cafeteria, your grade books, your transportation–they don’t all work together,” says Laurie Collins, utilization director for the SIF Association. There are, of course, packages that cover a wide range of applications and work together through proprietary interfaces. “But you wonder: Do they have the expertise to support that wide range?” Collins says. “If you’re working on a library system, you probably want that created by someone who really understands the needs of the library, or if you’re working on transporting students, you want someone who really understands scheduling and routing via a transportation system.”

And gathering different data from all those systems can be unwieldy or downright impossible. Larry Fruth, executive director of the SIF Association, tells a story about when he was working in a school district before his job with the association. The district had not undergone a SIF implementation: “I got a call from a legislator who wanted to know how many kids in our district were on free and reduced lunch, had English as a second language, are bused more than 15 miles to school each day, and didn’t pass their English proficiency the prior year. I laughed. I’d have to go to every school, ask where the info was held, put it all together. … It just wasn’t possible.”

On the other hand, when the data are interoperable, they can be held in many places but accessed from one place, and now such a request would be easy to accommodate, he explains.

How SIF works

Vendors of software such as student information systems or library management systems can become SIF certified through the SIF Association. SIF certification is designed to be a quality-assurance measure that guarantees the software meets the SIF guidelines. The SIF Association outsources the certification process to a third party, which validates that the software does what it says it will do and will be interoperable with other SIF-certified systems.

Rather than have each application vendor try to create a separate connection to every other application, the association has defined the set of rules to share data within a SIF “Zone.” A SIF Zone is a logical grouping of applications, in which software application “agents” communicate with each other through a central communication point–the Zone Integration Server, or ZIS, which generally run in the range of several thousand dollars. Data are shared between applications through a series of standardized messages, queries, and events written in XML and sent using internet protocols. These events are defined by the SIF Specification.