Access for Learning (a4l.org) is happy to announce a major new addition to the School Interoperability Framework (SIF) data model to support students with special needs. Comprising two major components, xIndividualizedEducationPlan and xIepTransfer, this release is the result of a two year effort led by TQ White II of the Central Minnesota Educational Research and Development Corporation (cmerdc.org) with the help of national experts in special education and data modeling. The effort is motivated by the recognized need to make a student’s individualized education plan (IEP) content available when a student transfers into a new school.
The new data models are intended to support three main use cases. 1) Immediate support for an administrator the very first time a student shows up in a new school. 2) Information to support the special education team as they adapt plans already in place to the resources and strategies of the receiving school. 3) Sufficient information for schools and districts to support reporting and resource management needs. The goal is to ensure that a school has the information needed to provide students having special needs with critical, ongoing services.
This new model is based on a thorough survey of the standard form sets published by nearly every state, as well as the federal government. They were categorized into representative groups for an exhaustive inventory of data and evaluation of documentation strategies. With the input of a workgroup averaging about ten people a structured hierarchy of elements was developed and refined. Once done, the work was passed to Jill Parkes, education data analyst, at CEDS (Common Educational Data Standards) a federal organization that develops a dictionary of education related data definitions.
The CEDS process did two things. First, they evaluated each element in the new, tentative IEP data model and, where appropriate, attached a formal definition to it, either new or in reference to an existing definition. Then it was put into a formal CEDS community review. CEDS stakeholders, especially those with an interest in special education, reviewed the new definitions and approved them. This discussion improved confidence in the data design and made it more complete.
After this information was added to the XML – and with substantially more confidence, the data model was formally moved into the Access for Learning community review process. Though some people looked at the XML and offered comments, the main process involved TQ making presentations to various groups explaining the process and product in detail. Many valuable comments were made that resulted in changes but two were especially valuable.
First was Megan Gangl, a co-worker of TQ’s at cmERDC. Megan has spent her entire career as special education teacher, case manager and leader of case managers. Her decades of experience brought many new details to the model, suggested reorganization of some parts and validated others. She identified missing details, helped to rename elements and refine both their data definitions and the explanations of their meanings. After the initial presentation, she spent several days collaborating on the model in detail. Once done, confidence in the usefulness, correctness and completeness of the model was again tremendously improved.
The day before community review started in October, a new person, Danielle Norton, joined the North American Technical Board. Danielle’s team contributed to the community review with sessions including the detailed overview presentation and discussions with various subgroups of her team. A particularly important contribution was made by Rick Shafer, a long experienced data architect, who noted some problems with normalization in the data model.
The initial motivation for the IEP effort was to support the transfer of students between schools or districts. Throughout the process, the foremost intention was to provide complete information for the receiving educational agency. As a consequence, the data model included data elements that were duplicates of things that were defined elsewhere in SIF. That is, it was badly de-normalized. It made it so that the element would provide a complete picture for a receiving district but was ill-suited for use as a local SIF entity object.
To solve this problem, the data model was split into two elements, xIndividualizedEducationPlan and xTransferIep. The former is completely normalized to serve as a formal entity. No data is represented that is defined elsewhere in SIF but is, instead, referenced with a refId. If a receiving program needs to know those details, it is expected to query the appropriate system for details.
The latter is conceived as a reporting object, i.e., it is intended to wrap information that is defined elsewhere for convenient reference. The xTransferIep includes structures that allow it to contain data referenced in the IEP that would otherwise require a query to a system to which the receiving organization may not have access. The xTransferIep is a complete representation of an IEP containing all details.
In this process, a new concept was added to SIF, the typed refId. Troubled by the fact that refIds inside the IEP provided no information about where the target information referenced by the refId could be found, TQ added several new data types to the data model. Each is a UUID (as is the generic refId) but each also included documentation elements that explain what the UUID refers to and where the data can be found. For example, one of the new types, iepCommonStudentContactRefIdPointerType, explains that it references a contact inside a student object, distinct from iepCommonContactRefIdPointerType, which points to an independent xContactType, e.g., service provider or doctor, somewhere else.
The last thing is that, with the help of Access for Learning’s John Lovell, the new data models were refined to fit the new xPress object strategy. It does not use XML attributes and refIds are only present for elements that need it. This allows easier use of the model in non-Java/.NET systems. xPress is a more recent addition to SIF v3 and has proven to be easier to work with and, consequently, more popular. It is expected that xPress will be the foundation of new infrastructure work to formally bring JSON into the data model.
As with any first effort, it is fully understood by TQ and the entire community that as this data model comes into actual use, shortcomings will be noted and ideas will be conceived. It is intended that the SpecEd/IEP workgroup will reconvene in the future to evaluate the results of implementation. That is to say that, as with the rest of SIF, the new IEP data models being released with SIF v3.5 are not the end of the effort to better support students with special needs. This release is the beginning of an ongoing effort to insure that SIF is able to help schools, districts and teachers have the information needed to support optimal educational outcomes and to allow students with special needs to have the brightest possible future.
For even more information, a video recording of the IEP Data Model Overview is available HERE. To contact TQ White II, leave word in the comments.