Can An $80 Million IBM Deal Save New York City's Schools?

The city just awarded IBM a five-year contract to create a massive system to manage, track, analyze, and share information about student and school performance. But it won't buy Johnny new pencils.
New York City's public school system -- the largest in the nation, and one wrought with problems common to intercity school districts -- will pay IBM $80 million over the next five years to develop a business intelligence system that tracks and analyzes student and school performance.

The Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) will give educators and parents access to exam results and school-administered assessments, and will be designed to help teachers identify and share effective practices and skillsets. "Armed with this information, our educators will be able to tailor instruction to their students' needs and parents will be able to get involved in their children's educations like never before," said New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein in a prepared statement. Parents will get ARIS-generated reports on performance beginning this fall, and will have online access to the system next year.

IBM technologies for the project include WebSphere Data Stage and Quality Stage, software products that came from its 2005 acquisition of Ascential that consolidate and integrate data from various sources and make it accessible for other uses, such as analysis, and its OmniFind enterprise search software. Historical information, including student performance, will be stored in content management systems. The system will also include the recently introduced Lotus Connections suite of social networking tools for creating wikis and blogs that teachers can use to communicate. IBM hardware and consulting services, of course, are also part of the deal.

How will this look in practice? Think of a teacher trying to help a student struggling with geometry, says Michael Littlejohn, VP of public sector for IBM global services. The teacher could tap into the system and search for best practices on geometry instruction, and get contact information for teachers identified as having strong skills in that area.

Still, the contract announced yesterday -- and apparently quietly negotiated between IBM and New York City's Department of Education -- will likely face scrutiny as more details are revealed. IBM says ARIS will be a highly secure system, yet it's likely some parents and teachers will voice concerns about a Big Brother approach to tracking the performance of more than one million students, and even teachers, which total about 90,000 in the public school system.

A spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City teachers, says the union is still learning about it. But its initial response was critical. "You can lower a lot of class sizes with that money -- or buy a lot of supplies," said union president Randi Weingarten in a prepared statement.

School chancellor Klein, who championed the deal, is a former U.S. assistant attorney general who prosecuted the Department of Justice's notorious anti-trust case against Microsoft. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is firmly behind the deal. In a story published Tuesday by the New York Daily News, Bloomberg said about ARIS, "Every child in this city deserves a public education and we will spare no expense."

Bloomberg is a tech-savvy mayor. On March 2, he received the Pathfinder Award from the Kennedy School of Government's Leadership for a Network World program, which recognized his creation of the city's 311 hotline and other technology-oriented programs.

The ARIS project is considered part of a program Klein and Bloomberg jointly launched in 2003 called Children First, vaguely described on the Department of Education's Web site as an overhaul of the school system that includes changes in strategy, leadership, management, people, and programming. It also describes Children First as "pursuing the spirit, as well as the letter" of President Bush's No Child Left Behind school accountability law, a subject of national debate and criticism since it was enacted in 2001. Bloomberg appointed Klein to the chancellor job in 2002.

New York isn't the only school system attempting to use technology to meet such goals. The Poway Unified School District in California is working with business intelligence vendor SAS to create a data warehouse to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind for tracking school and student performance. Everett Public Schools in Washington state began working with BI vendor Cognos last year to meet the state's monthly student performance reporting and analysis requirements.

In Lafourche Parish, La., the school system has used SPSS' data mining software to analyze student test scores, and its text analysis software to assess the results of teacher surveys. The school also has used the data mining software on some 33,000 disciplinary reports, to help understand the root causes of disciplinary problems and the most effective methods for handling them.

Many businesses began using business intelligence and related software to get in compliance with data management regulations such as Sarbanes Oxley, and once experienced with it, realized it could also help with strategic business goals such as revenue growth. IBM's Littlejohn says there a parallel with public education: No Child Left Behind has prompted some school districts to use technology to better manage data about students and schools, and now they're thinking about more ways it can help them achieve performance, communication, and information-sharing goals.

Still, businesses and schools are worlds apart on the types of challenges they face. Technology may help, but it'll never be able to address the all-too-familiar problems of overcrowded classrooms, overworked or inefficient teachers, and lack of parent participation and funding.

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