Los Angeles and the importance of knowing your limits

The nation’s second largest school district is in crisis. After a ten-year oddessy filled with lawsuits and vendor changes, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) finally tried to activate its new student information system (SIS) this year. Things are going poorly. This morning, in large part to the SIS mess, Superintendent John Deasy is “poised to resign.”

When I first read the L.A. Times history of LAUSD’s search for a new SIS, I almost fainted when I read of the district’s decision to develop an SIS in house.

No.

No.

No.

Have I mentioned “no?

An SIS is probably the single most important technology investment that school districts can make, arguably even more than technology that students themselves use. A good SIS allows every teacher and administrator in your class to know a child’s complete academic history. Bobby’s fourth-grade teacher doesn’t need to spend the first month of the school year wondering what concepts gave him trouble in third grade, because the SIS should put that information at her fingertips. A good SIS makes advanced data analysis exponentially easier, which leads to gains for students, money freed up for districts, and so much more. I’d even argue that a good SIS is critical to data security. Without a strong, secure SIS, student information exists either in individual spreadsheets or on paper in a filing cabinet. It is very easy to take something out of file cabinet or grab a spreadsheet off someone’s laptop. It is very difficult to hack into a good SIS. 

For an SIS to fulfill its potential, it needs to be robust enough to handle a lot of information. At a minimum, it needs to record students’ grades, scheduling, test score performance, and all other information directly relevant to academic performance. This seems to be only some of the information LAUSD hoped to capture.

Even a barely functional SIS for a district as large as LAUSD needs to store and make readily available billions of pieces of information annually. Billions. An anonymous industry expert refused to even estimate how massive a structure would be required to do what LAUSD wants it SIS to do.

In my work with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, I saw what the technology team in cash-strapped urban districts go through. They spend most of their time trying to ensure that the district can wring maximum benefit out of the incredibly limited resources the district is able to afford. Not a week went by without something incredibly important, including the SIS, crashing or inexplicably going offline. It’s only the routine heroic work of CMSD’s tech team that kept the district functional. CMSD’’s tech team is so busy putting out fires that they simply do not have the time or manpower to take on the massive challenge of building a modern SIS.

CMSD has about 37,000 students. LAUSD has about 630,000. 

To any educator reading this: at some point in your life you may ascend to a position of leadership within a district. Many of you already have. You may already be in position to make spending decisions for the entire district. I have worked with schools for twenty years, so I know exactly how little money you have, particularly since the Great Recession. I know you have no choice but to try to save as much money as possible in 99 percent of the decisions you make.

The choice of a student information system should be in the other 1 percent. Almost no district has the capacity to successfully build a strong SIS, least of all large urban districts. LAUSD’s struggles show that all districts should work in close partnership with firms that specialize in building SIS. With a weak SIS, districts risk finding themselves in a worse position than if they kept all information on papers in those filing cabinets. With a strong SIS, districts have the ability to fully unleash the power of data to drive better student outcomes.
 

Elizabeth Sobka