The Work Behind SIF's Framework

For almost 30 years, computer technology has made gradual inroads into all aspects of the educational enterprise: from early minicomputers used for scheduling and record keeping; to the Apple IIe and the IBM PC as early word processors; to today's multimedia powerhouses and the almost ubiquitous connectivity of the Internet.

Until recently, however, these disparate systems and the information they contained were isolated islands of data, kept separate by incompatible file formats and competing data structures. The methods used to collect, organize and analyze this information have often been slow, labor intensive and redundant. Double or triple entry, isolated and proprietary software programs, and decentralized data collection have all become staples of the school information culture.

This data isolation means that the information contained in these many systems was either unavailable for use in management decision making, longitudinal planning or educational evaluation. Or if it was available, literally years of staff time was required to make it even marginally useful; to the extent that often planning for even the near future required reliance on data that only dimly confirmed the distant past. With today's increasing emphasis on accountability, the need for accuracy and efficiency are greater than ever. To help overcome the technical hurdles of data sharing, and to help schools streamline administrative reporting and improve school management, a group of software companies and school systems joined together in 1999 to create the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF).

Building the SIF Specification

Since its inception, SIF has grown to an organization of more than 100 software vendors, school districts and other organizations active in K-12 education. They have been working to create a set of rules and definitions that will allow software programs from different companies to share information quickly, seamlessly and securely. This set of rules and definitions is called the SIF Implementation Specification (the Specification), and the most recent version was released in September 2001. Using software that conforms to the Specification makes it possible for schools and school systems to share data internally and externally, without any additional programming by the local school or district, and without requiring each vendor to learn and support the intricacies of other vendor's applications.

The Specification itself is a set of documents written by SIF working groups. These groups are primarily composed of software engineers from K-12 educational software companies who volunteer their time to work on the Specification. The groups are focused on segments of the K-12 enterprise, including, library, cafeteria, transportation, student information systems, instructional services, gradebook and data warehousing. These groups represent a wide cross section of the software companies active in K-12, and are responsible for developing a set of common definitions for school data. These common data definitions are called "Data Objects."

Data Objects cover many types of information utilized in schools. For example, a student's name, address and phone number are part of the "StudentPersonal" Data Object. By having different software programs understand this common definition of student data, it is possible for them to share this information properly. The Specification currently defines 19 Data Objects; an additional 40 Data Objects are in draft with more to be defined as the Specification evolves. In addition to Data Objects, the Specification also defines the set of rules for how software programs actually transport and process these Objects. This set of rules is called the "Infrastructure," and uses common Internet and networking communications protocols.

By using industry standards to transport these Data Objects, SIF ensures that any and all software vendors will be able to use the SIF framework, and that all school systems should be able to implement it regardless of what kinds of software applications they use. Ensuring that SIF is vendor neutral and platform independent is an important guiding principle of SIF, and is the foundation of the long-term viability of the Specification.

As one can imagine, bringing together representatives from more than 100 competing software companies to agree on a common set of rules and definitions is a long, complex process. Because SIF is a voluntary organization, without the dedication of the companies and individuals involved, progress would have been impossible. In fact, though there are similar efforts underway in other industries to define standards, few are quite as far along as SIF.

The current Specification is the second release, and has been through enough internal review and technical analysis that SIF is encouraging its members to begin deploying their SIF-enabled applications in sites around the country. Schools and districts are encouraged to begin asking for SIF-enabled applications and requiring SIF participation in their RFPs. SIF has even created some sample RFP language that is available on the SIF Web site ( below.

SIF-Recommended RFP Language

1. Describe your company's commitment to SIF.

2. Is your company registered as a SIF endorser or participant?

3. SIF Involvement:

  • List your company's primary business and technical SIF contacts.
  • List SIF leadership positions held by staff in your organization.
  • List SIF working groups in which your company actively participates and staff hours of company involvement in each working group.

4. Proposed Applications and SIF Compliance:

  • List applications that will be provided by your company as part of thisproposal, and identify those with SIF Agents.
  • Indicate whether each Agent is available for implementation.
  • Identify the Agents that have been tested and implemented in a SIF Showcase, Beta Site or other school district
  • Identify the version of the SIF Specification for each Agent.
  • Identify the SIF Object(s) that the Agent handles.
  • Are costs for your Agent(s) included in the costs for your software or are they separate costs?
  • How are upgrades to your Agent(s) priced?
  • Describe installation support and its cost, if any.
  • Describe ongoing support and its cost, if any.
  • Are upgrades included in software maintenance or annual service agreement?
  • If not, why?

5. Zone Integration Server (ZIS):
D'es your company provide or market a Zone Integration Server (ZIS)?

  • Is the ZIS available for implementation?
  • Identify the SIF Specification versions that the ZIS supports.
  • Has the ZIS been tested and implemented in a SIF Showcase, Beta Site or other school district? Please identify all test/implementation sites.
  • D'es your proposal include the cost of the ZIS and implementation?
  • Is there an additional cost for upgrades?
  • Are training and support for the ZIS included, or are there additional costs?
  • Describe the training and support provided (documentation, phone support, etc.).
  • If you are not supplying a ZIS in your proposal, which have you successfully interoperated with?
  • Which ZIS will you use in this installation?
  • What additional software needs to be installed and operational for your ZIS to run properly?

6. SIF Experience
Describe any specific work your company has done at SIF Showcase sites, Compliance Beta Sites or other school district implementations. For each site, provide the following information:

  • The scope, timeline and brief history of each project.
  • The role your organization played in implementation and support.
  • The function(s) supported by your application(s) (i.e., subscriber, provider, etc.).
  • Duration of your company's involvement in the installation.
  • Other Agent vendors involved in the project.
  • SIF Data Objects shared within the project.
  • The ZIS used.
  • Customer contacts (references) for each project.

7. Describe your company's plans for making your application(s) SIF compliant.

  • Assuming the formal SIF Compliance testing process is ready in late spring 2002, d'es your company anticipate that your application(s) will be ready for SIF Compliance testing at that time?
  • Identify the version(s) of your application(s) that are anticipated for formal compliance testing.
  • Any additional comments on your compliance plans?

8. SIF Support

  • Will your company assist the district in using SIF to interface your application with other internal and external legacy information systems used by the district?
  • What specific training, support and development assistance will be provided?

The Importance of SIF Compliance

To provide educators with the confidence that the SIF-enabled software applications they purchase will share data without any special programming or significant modifications to the software, SIF is developing the SIF Compliance Program. The SIF Compliance Program will involve SIF members putting their software application through a series of tests to confirm that their software program properly follows the rules and definitions of the SIF Implementation Specification. A third party hired by SIF to administer the program will verify the test results. A software application that successfully performs the tests will be able to display the "SIF Compliant" logo on its package, Web site and promotional literature. The SIF Compliant logo indicates that this particular version of the software has been tested and certified to properly communicate and share information with other SIF Compliant software.

Compliance is important for both educators and software companies. It gives educators the confidence that these SIF Compliant software applications will work together with other SIF Compliant programs without any special programming or significant modifications to the software. It also allows educators to choose the software applications that meet their local computing needs, and allows them to increase the number of programs sharing data with confidence.

Compliance is also important for software companies. For vendors, it verifies that their applications will be able to share information with programs from other companies. This can be an important difference when school districts are making substantial software investments. It also allows them to reduce implementation time, because adding a new program into an existing SIF implementation should be easier and faster. This will save time and money for the school, as well as for the software company, by streamlining the implementation and eliminating the need for costly and time-consuming customization.

It is important to note that no SIF Compliant programs exist today, because SIF is still in the process of developing both the compliance processes and the test suites. However, SIF-enabled applications are currently available from a number of vendors. Also, SIF has created the Compliance Beta Program as a way for schools to begin implementing SIF and for vendors to validate their products through real-time installations.

The Benefits of SIF-Enabled Applications

Implementing SIF-enabled software programs can provide schools and districts with a flexible and robust technology infrastructure to help them meet the growing list of management and accountability demands. Today, when a student enrolls in a school they often register in the front office, where their information is entered into a Student Information System by a registrar or secretary. That same information then needs to be re-entered into the library system, the cafeteria system, the transportation system and, depending on the school, a network account. And access to the school's Web site or other learning management tools must be created, all with virtually the same information.

Each time this information is entered, the possibility of error arises and staff time is taken away from providing direct services to students. It can take days or weeks for this information to make its way into each system. And because these systems don't communicate on their own, updates to data in one system don't make it to all of the others; meaning that incorrect data or at least inconsistent data is the norm. Attempts to generate reports with a comprehensive view of the school or system often become tedious "data cleansing" operations requiring substantial staff time and effort.

In contrast, in a SIF-enabled school, once the new student's information is entered into the Student Information System, the data is automatically transferred to all of the other applications. This is a tremendous time-saver for school staff, because by the time a student walks from the office to the library, their library card is waiting for them. In addition, the cafeteria application and network operating system will already have the student's information, which allows them to get lunch and login to the network on their first day as well.

Providing data-reliant services directly to students is no longer contingent on school staff dragging themselves away from the students to re-enter information. Staff is free to do what they were hired to do - help students learn. For students, not having to hold up the checkout line at the library to get a library card or produce additional documentation to receive free and reduced lunches can help students feel like a part of the school from their very first day.

These are typical examples of existing SIF implementations. The number of SIF-enabled applications installed at the school or district will impact everything from saving time for instructional staff and streamlining administrative tasks, to enabling more efficient allocations of support staff, to facilities planning and long-range enrollment forecasting necessary to evaluate new construction needs. In addition, SIF is working with states and the federal government to look at ways in which SIF implementations can reduce the reporting burden schools and districts now face.

The ultimate goal of SIF is to provide all school and district personnel with appropriate access to the most correct and timely data available. So, for a teacher, the impact of SIF in their school or district will be significant. If their district implements SIF-enabled software, the first benefit they may encounter is a newfound confidence that the data they access - from class lists with parents' or guardians' addresses and phone numbers, to grade reports and bus schedules - is the most up-to-date, available data in the system.

Similarly, teachers responsible for data entry, such as entering stu-dents in an Instructional Manage-ment System or a gradebook pro-gram, may find all of this data entry has already been accomplished by the SIF-enabled software, pre-serving their time for planning and direct instruction. Teachers, secretaries and other staff may never have to deal with the nuts and bolts of implementing SIF in a school or district, but SIF's impact on their ability to be an informed, effective teacher will be both direct and substantial.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.