Glitchy system: Inside the student software debacle
Why did Albemarle County school officials commit nearly $2 million to a software system that has proven faulty, despite multiple complaints from teachers that using it was a "waste of time," and an admission from one County school official that it was "glitchy, to say the least"?
At a time when school systems are facing budget cuts, losing teachers, and seeing classroom size increase, spending on technology has soared. Indeed, terms like "digital learners" and "data driven education" have captured the imaginations– and purse strings– of school administrators.
Just recently, the Charlottesville School Board announced that it will spend $2.4 million on new tablet-type laptops for students. According to a recent article in the New York Times, education, technology, and big business are now entangled to the tune of $1.89 billion a year, the amount that schools spent on software for classroom use in 2010. Spending on hardware, researchers say, was likely five times that amount.
However, according to experts interviewed by the Times, there is very little specific evidence that using technology in the schools enhances learning.
“There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period,” said Larry Cuban, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, in the Times. "There is no body of evidence that shows a trend line."
However, a Hook investigation reveals one possible trend line in the County school system: implementing the software system may have benefited top school administrators, and the company they contracted with, more than it has teachers and students.
But getting answers hasn't been easy.
When the Hook filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents and staff emails concerning the implementation of the software, the newspaper was charged nearly $2,000 for the information. In addition, 268 emails to or from County School Superintendent Pam Moran were withheld.
The County school board has clammed up as well.
According to School Board member Eric Strucko, who had already commented for this story, members met in closed session on August 25 to discuss questions raised by the Hook, and the nature of the newspaper's FOIA request, but said the law restricted the board from commenting further.
The tech-savvy Super
In April, while Moran was receiving a Distinguished Public Service Award from UVA's Curry School of Education, with the citation noting that she is a "visionary leader" particularly well-known for her "integration of technology at all levels of a school system," the actual technology being integrated in County schools was so faulty that schedules, grade calculations, and transcript mailings for college-bound seniors were being done by hand.
"Using this stupid system," one school staff member told the Hook, "was like trying to text with a rotary phone."
Indeed, as the Hook reported in its March 10 story, 'Unpardonable': Faulty IT system vexes college-bound County seniors, parents at area high schools were "stunned" to learn that the County schools' Student Information System, or SIS, had created errors and caused student transcripts to be sent to colleges late, a situation that one school counselor called "unpardonable."
While the Hook found no evidence that any seniors were denied college admission as a direct result of the fiasco, due mostly to over-time work from counselors and teachers, who assembled the information by hand, a follow-up investigation reveals that faculty had been struggling with the software system, provided by a company named Schoolnet, for months, even years.
"The central office claimed that Schoolnet would be an instructional aid, but that was simply not true," says former Western Albemarle High School social studies teacher Mark Crockett, who calls the purchase of the $2 million Schoolnet system a "boondoggle."
"It was expensive and time-consuming," says Crockett, "and no one really uses it."
As part of a written "narrative" provided to the Hook in response to the FOIA request, school officials claimed that Schoolnet's Instructional Management System (IMS) was a "key component of the Division's organizational communication system."
"Only in theory and propaganda," says WAHS English teacher Bill Guerrant, who retired in June after 29 years. "I think teachers and staff were required to log on to increase Schoolnet's web traffic, to justify the expense."
Like Crockett, Guerrant says that using the IMS was a tedious, time consuming process that was full of glitches, and that teachers and staff were simply not using it.
"It was a complete waste of time I could have otherwise spent grading and preparing for my students," he says.
"Once a quarter I give the County-mandated assessments using it, but that’s it," says a 6th grade teacher at Henley Middle School who asked to remain anonymous.
Indeed, the teacher says she recently discovered that none of the other 13 6th grade teachers used Schoolnet more than once a quarter, and that only one 7th grade teacher was using it.
"The narrative downtown gave you seems to come from the vendor's website," says Guerrant.
As for the new Schoolnet SIS system, officials explained that it gave classroom teachers the capability of "generating and emailing student progress reports to parents, and keeping them informed of student performance in a timely manner throughout the school year."
But couldn't that be done with a phone call?
"Yes," says Crockett, "or an email."
However, one part of the official narrative makes sense to Crockett: that the IMS system was a "central repository for student data" used to meet the demands of Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOL) testing.
"You see, the be-all end-all of Schoolnet was student test scores," says Crockett.
How much is enough?
For a decade now, public school systems across the country have labored under the demands of No Child Left Behind, the 2001 law that requires them to make "AYP," Adequate Yearly Progress (a measurement determined by standardized test scores) or else risk being labeled a "failed" school and face possible federal intervention.
In 2009, County school brass proudly announced that the school system had made AYP, meeting all 29 No Child Left Behind achievement benchmarks, an accomplishment for which Moran credited teachers– and Schoolnet.
“We attribute our success to our excellent teachers who work together in professional learning communities," said Moran in a Schoolnet press release. "They are able to access, understand, and apply real-time student assessment data through our information management system, Schoolnet.”
As recently reported, however, Moran has nothing positive to say about NCLB, as her division– joining the crowd of 128 of Virginia's 132 divisions– failed to make AYP. Moran blamed the situation, Albemarle's second consecutive failure, on NCLB's testing standards, which climb each year, calling them "onerous" and "unrealistic" at an August 11 School Board meeting.
"Enough is enough," Moran declared.
While Moran joins a chorus of educators across the country demanding reforms in the NCLB, and which the Obama Administration is pushing for, recent years have proven to be a boon for companies like Schoolnet. In the five years after NCLB was passed, the company's revenues shot up over 1,700 percent.
"Schoolnet is inextricably linked to NCLB and AYP," says Crockett. "I’ve provided plenty of data on this before to school officials."
According to the latest data, says Crockett, 99 percent of all schools in California will be failing schools by 2014; 88 percent in Connecticut and Ohio; and 96 percent in Illinois; with that same trend continuing across the country.
"Now that 2014 is closing in, and more than half of all school districts in Virginia are not making AYP," says Crockett, "suddenly, superintendents and school board members are starting to talk against NCLB. But they should have been doing this years ago."
However, as the Hook 's investigation reveals, Schoolnet appears to have been a boon for school administrators. While there's no evidence that Moran or anyone else in her office was paid directly by Schoolnet, the relationship with the high-powered edu-tech company appears to have paid other dividends.
The Schoolnet way
In 1988, Schoolnet co-founder Dennis Doyle co-authored the best-selling book, Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive, with late former Xerox CEO David T. Kearns. It branded the public school system a "failed monopoly," advocated for private and religious school vouchers, and argued that public schools should be run more like businesses.
Doyle had been writing about the subject for years with the support of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institute. In 1991, the first President Bush was so impressed by the running-schools-like-businesses idea that he made Kearns the Deputy Secretary of Education.
Ten years later, it was the second President Bush who won passage of NCLB, based on the same pro-business philosophy, and Doyle went from education scholar to educational software millionaire. In a January 2005 article, Doyle called the NCLB law "bold and visionary" and heralded the ascendance of chief information officers, or CIOs.
"We are witnessing a sweeping cultural change in the business of education," Doyle wrote. "More school districts now have CIOs, formerly a business-only role, which is becoming vital to effective education."
This past April, the company was purchased by a competitor for a whopping $230 million in cash.
It's not hard to see how the money piles up.
To improve student achievement through "data-driven decision-making," Moran locked the County into a six-year contract with Schoolnet that launched with an upfront licensing fee of $750,299 and an average annual fee of about $70,000 for hosting and services. And there's another annual fee, over $100,000, for "software maintenance."
In all, the December 2006 deal has committed the County to spending $1.72 million. And that wasn't the end of the money-flow to Schoolnet. Last summer, the division implemented another Schoolnet system called GradeSpeed, a brand new SIS designed to house student data, create course schedules, record grades, and allow parents and teachers to communicate, for a one-time cost of $47,000 plus about $48,000 in annual maintenance costs– with a goal, according to Moran, of "creating a seamless information portal."
The result, however, was the springtime transcripts fiasco.
Moran then issued an RFP for a new student information system to replace GradeSpeed, and earlier this year she contracted with Schoolnet's new owner, Pearson, for its "PowerSchool" system. The new package carries an upfront cost of $225,317 with $58,500 in additional annual payments.
"When it became fully apparent that the GradeSpeed product could not meet our needs as a school division, we took steps to move to a new product," says Moran in a prepared statement.
According to then County schools spokesperson Maury Brown, the problems with the Schoolnet SIS became "fully apparent" in late March, but as the Hook's FOIA revealed, teachers had tried to make Moran and other central office executives aware of the severity of the problems as early as the previous summer.
"Why did we not listen to the teachers' recommendations if we took the time to ask them?" wrote former School Board member Ronnie Price in a November 3, 2010, email to Moran and other County officials, following a meeting at which teachers voiced their concerns about Schoolnet.
"We brought these concerns about Schoolnet and the GradeSpeed system forward beginning last summer," says one teacher who asked to remain anonymous, "and continued to do so all year. We were ignored and even chastised for complaining. "
"The teachers feel they have no access to nor ability to communicate with the School Board without fear of retaliation," Price told Moran.
I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine?
Way back in 2008, questions were raised about Schoolnet, which, although purchased in 2006, was at that time not yet operational. But it wasn't the local media asking questions; it was a Western Albemarle High School student.
Aspiring filmmaker Zack Marotta, who now lives in New York, produced a short video news story for the student newspaper, The Western Beat, pointing out that severe budget cuts were being contemplated, as well as fees– which have since been implemented– for participating in athletics. The story questioned the $750K initial cost of the software, as well as its effectiveness.
Ironically, in an October 2006 email to school staff, Moran advocated upgrading the school's aging student information system at the time, Pearson’s SASIxp, with a new product from the same company. Instead, she contracted with an entirely new vendor, Schoolnet, a decision that some school staff find puzzling, considering the County's history of using Pearson products.
School board member Strucko, who, in his job as director of business planning for the CFA Institute, has seen plenty of software implementation, says changing vendors is not unusual.
"I will say that facing the decision either to upgrade an existing legacy system or purchase a replacement product is a standard exercise for any organization," he says.
However, Moran played a role in Schoolnet's marketing for GradeSpeed, as she was prominently featured in the company's promotional materials when the product launched.
“The Schoolnet staff provides customized attention and exemplary service," said Moran in a 2010 Schoolnet press release. "I believe that Schoolnet and GradeSpeed SIS will add significant performance value to any school district looking to enhance learning results through more informed data-driven decision-making."
In addition, Moran has been a blogger on Schoolnet's website, where she touted former CIO Luvelle Brown's work implementing Schoolnet in Albemarle. Since 2008, both Moran and Brown have been featured speakers at EduStat University, a technology conference founded and funded by Schoolnet and held two years ago at Monticello High School.
There, in July 2009, Moran shared the stage with Doyle and Schoolnet CEO Jonathan Harber. Various speakers, some nationally known, spoke on the theme of "data-driven decision-making for schools" and addressed the question "What is wrong with our learning environments?" while Schoolnet employees held workshops on using company products.
According to a memorandum of understanding with Schoolnet, obtained in the Hook's FOIA request, the County school division was responsible for local travel, venues, and equipment, and– most surprisingly– an in-state marketing campaign for the event. Meanwhile, Schoolnet was charging between $500 per individual and $1,000 per team (a school principal and two staff members) for the conference. Over 500 people attended.
In return, Schoolnet spent $85,000 on the event, including $9,000 for a catered dinner at presidential mansion Ash Lawn-Highland and $12,000 for on-site food and beverages, which were, according to the agreement, "upscale to make participants feel like they were at a special event."
At the time of the convention, a local news story touted EduStat 2009 as a gathering of "world leaders in educational innovation" held in Albemarle County because of the school system's tech savvy reputation.
"Albemarle is considered an innovative leader in how we develop curriculum, how we deliver instruction in the classroom, and how we assess it," Luvelle Brown told the Charlottesville Newsplex.
However, the press account didn't mention that Albemarle County Public Schools was a Schoolnet client. Last month, the EduStat University conference was hosted by the Virginia Beach School system, also a Schoolnet client, and Moran and Brown were featured speakers. Indeed, since the 2008 conference, the school system hosting each event has been a client.
"That lack of disclosure doesn't surprise me," says Crockett. "This is all just phony baloney. Don't get me wrong; technology is a valuable tool, but technology doesn't teach. Teachers were forced to use this technology so the administration could say it was useful."
"This doesn't look good," says former County school board member Gary Grant, commenting on the presence of County school brass at Schoolnet conferences, and Moran being quoted in the company's press releases. "That's a potential conflict of interest."
Useful to whom?
In February 2010, before her Curry School honor, Moran received a national Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award from eSchool News for "outstanding leadership in the use of technology to further educational goals." Moran and Brown, who was in charge of the implementation of the Schoolnet system (and had famously introduced iPods into the classroom), along with Assistant Superintendent Bruce Benson and others in the central office, were fast becoming known as school-tech innovators.
In a 2009 reorganization of the County Schools' central office, which eliminated 15 positions, Brown went from being the rather blandly titled "executive director of division and school improvement," to becoming the Chief Information Officer (those CIOs Doyle talked about), and shortly after that the still more impressive-sounding head of the Department of Accountability, Research & Technology (DART), a department in charge of implementing and maintaining Albemarle's Schoolnet.
In addition, former principal and teacher Bruce Benson was made assistant superintendent for planning and operations, and high school principal William Haun took Benson's old position.
Last year, about the time the problems with Schoolnet began to emerge, Brown landed a $175,000-a-year superintendent job in Ithaca, New York, based in no small part on his high-tech credentials.
In May of this year, Benson, who took over the leadership of Technology after Brown's resignation and before the hiring of new CIO Vince Scheivert, accepted a six-figure job as Superintendent of Accomack County Public Schools.
Of course, those salaries can't beat Moran's $180,000 a year. Indeed, while the central office staff may have been reduced, six central office employees there right before Benson's departure made a combined $641,000 in annual salaries.
Something to hide?
When the Hook made its request for emails between County School executives and Schoolnet representatives, over 3,000 pages were delivered, with most documents confirming the massive frustrations staff were having with Schoolnet and the new GradeSpeed system. What came as a shock to the newspaper, however, was the bill.
Typically, when the Hook files a Freedom of Information request, the newspaper receives a bill amounting to about 10 cents per page. In this case, that might have meant about $300. Albemarle County Schools, however, went farther, billing the Hook $1,972.
"That's outrageous," says former school board member Grant. "It sounds like they want to stick it to you."
Despite the voluminous charges, Moran refused to turn over her own correspondence, opting to withhold 268 emails she sent or received regarding Schoolnet. Under a special exemption afforded to chief executives, state law gives her that right, but that means the public may never fully understand what transpired.
So why was the bill so high? It included staff time for "researching, printing, and reading emails." That would be 54 hours of staff time– including 44 hours attributed to the school board clerk. The official pre-search estimate hadn't quite predicted the eye-popping bill.
"I think this will take a few to several 8-hour days," wrote Annie Kim, then senior assistant county attorney, in her cost estimate. "Most or all of the work will be done by employees with an hourly rate of less than $30 an hour. Given this, I believe that the cost will exceed $200."
Legally, Moran maintains the right to bill for research costs, including her own time. Indeed, Moran charged $85.99 per hour for her time, while other top administrators charged between $55 and $63 per hour for theirs. After our complaint, Moran deleted research time spent by her and by the other administrators and reduced the bill to $1,464. But she declined to reduce it further.
What's more, the County school system has a Communications & Media Relations office charged with "enhancing communication" between the school and the general public and also "manages Freedom of Information Act requests."
However, according to County attorney Larry Davis, the Hook's information request was "non-routine" and therefore required attorney assistance and what he called "reasonable" charges for the time spent gathering the information.
Grant says he considers Moran a friend, but he finds her handling of the information request disturbing.
"Do you want a superintendent who's transparent," asks Grant, "or do you want one who's exacting retribution against a reporter who dares to ask a question?"
By comparison, when reporters received over 24,000 pages of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's emails after a FOIA request earlier this year, news organizations were charged just $725 for copying.
Asked why she withheld her emails, whether she considered the cost of the FOIA request reasonable, and if her public statements about Schoolnet products represented a conflict of interest, Moran had a reporter summoned to her office to pick up a letter of response from her secretary.
The letter did not address the question about her email, the possible conflict of interest, but she wrote that she considered the FOIA charge reasonable and did admit to problems with the Schoolnet SIS.
"There are complexities involved in the development and implementation of any software," wrote Moran, saying she was committed to finding the "best value" on services for taxpayers."
While Moran's communications remain hidden, emails from other officials offer glimpses of a software debacle. There were "multiple setbacks daily," according to an email from Luvelle Brown, who was serving as an unpaid member of Schoolnet's Product Advisory Council. In another 2010 email, Brown tells a Schoolnet official he needs to meet with school staff to "do some damage control."
In another email, Schoolnet Vice President Andy Brenner says he's flying into Virginia Beach late one night to meet with school officials there and wants to know if Brown, whom he address as "my man," wants to go out on the town after his flight arrives.
Brown also met with a group of teachers last spring to talk about the positives of Schoolnet.
"But teachers had already found out how useless it was," says Crockett. "At the end of his pep talk, he asked, 'Doesn't this sound like something you can use?' The answer was a resounding 'no.'"
Attempts to reach Brown for comment were unsuccessful.
In a series of communications in early September 2010, Haun, tech director Becky Fisher, and division spokesperson Maury Brown helped draft a letter for Matthew Haas, Director of Secondary Education, to teachers who had been reporting that GradeSpeed had been calculating grades incorrectly. In the carefully worded letter, Haas praises the teachers' hard work, acknowledges the problems, but tells them that they will have to keep using it.
"Should we acknowledge that it [GradeSpeed] has a 'known issue' that we are going to need to work around this year?" writes Maury Brown in an email to the group, adding that she has been advocating more disclosure of the problems.
"I'm afraid too much soft-pedal will further erode our credibility," responds Maury Brown. "It is clear that the new SIS and GradeSpeed are 'glitchy,' to say the least."
"The theme of the difficulty of using Schoolnet has come up several times," wrote board member Kolezar in a November 5 email to Moran, Benson, and Luvelle Brown. "Is there any substance behind this complaint?"
"No one could give me a reason why we went with Schoolnet," then Board member Price writes in an email. "Schoolnet had huge problems. It was new, and my understanding was that the process itself was flawed, and the teachers were complaining because they felt they were doing double work in helping the vendor to create this new system."
Indeed, by early 2011 the situation was deteriorating.
"We have been functioning in crisis mode for a long time now," writes Monticello High School principal Catherine Worley in a February email to tech staff. "It greatly concerns me that this crisis mode may directly affect kids now."
"There have been multiple failures in the process of getting transcripts out this year," writes Mark Leach, the County school division's coordinator of information management systems, in a March 2 email to Moran, Benson, and Haas. "A significant portion of the problems have been with the SIS itself."
A month earlier, a frustrated Leach fired off an email to a Schoolnet rep complaining that information from the company to address the problems was "incomplete or misleading."
Kolezar, responding to a March 14 email from a parent demanding that Moran be fired over the faulty grading system (and over her insistence on "4X4" block scheduling), calls the SIS "a major mistake," but expresses full support for Moran.
"We did receive updates from the administration, particularly Mr. Brown, who did disclose a few difficulties with implementation," says Strucko, who also mentions that new CIO Scheivert has kept the Board informed about the progress in fixing it.
"While the decision to purchase this system pre-dated me," Strucko says, "overseeing the work on a $2 million information system project that has failed up to now is part of my responsibilities."
According to former spokesperson Brown, while the $225,317 Pearson PowerSchool product is being implemented, there are no plans to stop using the roughly $150,000 a year Schoolnet Instructional Management System.
Moving forward, Strucko says, he plans to request that the Board receive a presentation on the progress of Schoolnet at its next meeting.
"I do think we need to see immediate and tangible progress with fixing these systems," says Strucko, "before the Board and the public can have restored confidence that we made a sound investment in this infrastructure."
However, after nearly three decades of teaching, Guerrant questions the investment by a central office that "practices deception and misdirection" and fails to "provide leadership that teachers can respect."
"This software problem is only one illustration of how the current administration has compromised instructional rigor and driven dedicated teachers away," says Guerrant. "It's an experience teachers in this county have long since struggled to overcome."
CORRECTION 9/15: School Board member Eric Strucko no longer works at CFA, as we initially reported. He left that position in 2007 and is currently the CFO at the University of Virginia Physicians Group.