Where does money go in public education? And how is that money spent?

These questions prompted the Office of the State Auditor to create a system to make data-driven decisions on spending in Utah schools, 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 a recent Educational Leadership sponsored event, state auditor John Dougall said money generally doesn’t make a difference because schools don’t align spending with their goals.

“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.

The data system, dubbed Project KIDS (Key Integrated Data Systems), will help schools track where their money is going and if the outcomes of their spending align with their goals. To do this, they are collecting big data from every school district and charter school in Utah. 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).

The McKay School collaboration provides education prowess. As 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. The department offers expertise through internships with education policy graduate students and formal research collaboration with faculty members.

Research analyst and BYU alumna, Anne Nollet, said that educational 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 said they visualize the data in interactive, user-friendly dashboards.

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 identification number. Users can also look at spending for specific groups of students: low-income, ELL (English Language Learners), or special needs.

Nollet cautioned that her team is not making any judgments with this tool. “We’re hoping that the school district personnel ... 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 next step for Project KIDS is to collect data from the remaining Utah school districts within a year. The auditor’s office will then make these dashboards available to school districts, secondary stakeholders (researchers, advocacy groups, legislators), and eventually, the public, after sensitive data is anonymized.

“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 want to help the school districts get on board with that and start using the data they’re collecting.”