You Decide: Is Our New Statewide Student Information System an Albatross, a Hairy Beast, or Worse?

Did Arizona hire the discredited architects of Healthnet.gov to design our Statewide Student Information System? It seems like it.

Arizona hired the discredited architects of Healthnet.gov to design our Statewide Student Information System (SSIS). We got what we deserved. Actually, the part about who created it isn’t true, but if you have to deal with this over-featured, under-intuitive monster, you might have believed me. I know because that’s what I told our administrators. The conversation started with our assistant principal saying that the only way to get the hairy beast to do anything is to find a back door. I made the Healthnet.gov programmer joke, and she laughed. Then she stopped laughing. Then she said, “Wait, I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not. Is that true?”

Now, I ask about every new policy, “Does it provide More and Better Learning Time?” And I’d bet the promoters of this albatross would enthusiastically say, “YES! That’s what we’re all about! Spend some time with this and you’ll see how much More and Better Learning Time you have!” Well, I’ve spent nine weeks working with it daily, as have my colleagues, and no one is marveling at the all the extra time the application has freed up.

And it’s not like we’re trying to launch missions to Mars; we’re trying to do routine tasks like:

Transfer a student to a different period and make sure their grades get transferred, too. With our old program, there was an option that said, in effect, “Transfer student’s grades, too.” But nothing doing with this hot mess. Steve, the first poor soul who tried to do this should-be mundane task, discovered that grades were lost in the process and he had to re-enter them, one by one. Fortunately, Steve’s got either grit or insomnia, because he found the time to find the multiple clicks it takes to get grades to follow students to new periods and then shared the steps with everyone.

Then there was the happy Monday after we submitted our first quarter progress reports. We opened our grade-books to find that to all appearances four weeks of grades had been wiped out. After much panic and profanity, some of us found that off to the side of the window used to select a class to open there are some boxes. By clicking the one marked Q1, we got our grades back. Swamp Thing had apparently treated the remainder of the quarter as an entirely new grading period instead of a continuation of the current one and took the initiative to remove “old” grades.

Here’s my favorite SSIS poop in the punch bowl. Teachers often transfer between schools. Howerver, the new system doesn’t keep track of that efficiently. So when teachers like my friend Kate came to our school, her rosters showed her students from her old school. And get this – Kate transferred during the summer – weeks before school started! – and it still took weeks after school started for her rosters to show her new students at our school. That left Kate, and who knows how many others, scrambling to find alternative means to keep track of grades and attendance. (And whose names did the teacher who took Kate’s former position see when they opened their roster?)

Beyond all that, the coders failed to include at least one key feature that really would be useful, and could possibly have legal implications. They left out any means to systematically document, for easy retrieval, misbehavior by disruptive students. That’s critical for students causing ongoing, or escalating, problems. Without documentation, we have very little leverage in taking stricter actions that may require district approval. Moreover, it’s from such documentation that we can prove we apply consistent interventions to all students, regardless of their ethnicity – a big legal issue these days.

I could go on – the silly seating chart manager, the pop-up that shows up when you want to close the window asking if you want to close the window or leave it open, and any number or other times that it takes eight to ten mouse clicks to accomplish what you should be able to do in three or four. But you get the idea.

I just wish that instead of obsessing over coding one more dysfunctional feature after another into this festering pustule of malignant ooze (too gross to link to), the programmers who wrote it, the lawmakers who mandated its use, and the district administrators who implemented it had read The Key to Successful Tech Management – Learning to Metabolize Failure, by my intellectual hero, Clay Shirky, author of the principle that, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

In his article,* Shirky identifies key practices that lead to the failure of government initiatives. Here are five that led to the malfunctions of our Statewide Student Information System:

  • They rolled it out under a unreasonable combination of features, quality, and deadlines;
  • They provided no means to quickly report problems in time to correct them;
  • They didn’t divide the implementation into small, testable chunks to be improved and implemented on a reasonable time scale; and
  • The district doesn’t provide sufficient talent to assure the initiative is deployed appropriately. (The trainers and tech support folks are fine, but they’re overwhelmed with calls that shouldn’t be necessary.)

Working with this slimy worm of a program puts me in the same mood and state of mind that doing my taxes does. But whereas I can usually knock out my taxes in a weekend, I have to deal with “Lumbricina” every period, every day. So every single day, along with teachers across the district, I waste ridiculous amounts of time navigating the SSIS that should be spent doing our jobs.

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*Regular readers (both of you) will remember I’ve twice used Shirkey’s article as a means to judge Arizona’s roll out of our Common Core standardized test. Find them here and here.