Not Your Mother's Student Information System

Courtney Williams's picture
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Like seemingly everyone else connected to K12 education, vendors that offer student information systems are being called upon to do more with less. Where past generations of these systems focused on nuts and bolts such as time, attendance and behavioral issues, the latest generation has created-and drawn inspiration from-districts' desires for all-in-one solutions that blend finance, HR and student data. The current systems also add features like parent portals and mobile access, all tailored toward the stagnant-at-best budgets that districts and states look likely to face well into the 2010s.

“It’s not your mother’s student information system,” says Brett Kramer, executive director for improvement initiatives at the Marana (Ariz.) Unified School District, which uses GENESIS software, which is now under the Synergy Education Platform. “Five, six years ago, student information systems were not built to tie together standards, lessons and grade books for teachers, parents and students all to access.”

Beyond the Classroom

Student information systems (SIS) are also going beyond the classroom when it comes to where teachers, parents and students can access them, says Rob Wilson, president of Edupoint. “You’re able to take attendance, view all the student details—you can be on a field trip, walking around the room. It doesn’t matter where you are—you have [mobile] access,” he says. People need access to information, not just at a desk, but wherever they are.

Skyward’s School Management Suite emphasizes features such as online assignments that include enrichment games for students that districts can customize, and student performance benchmarking that feeds into teacher evaluation, says Ray Ackerlund, marketing director. “Teachers are relying on their SIS to give them that understanding of how the student is doing, and where they need to improve,” he says.

Marana Unified has used the student-parent portal, standards-based grading, and the “lesson view” curriculum component, Kramer says. The latter gives teachers access to a library of materials from sources that align with specific standards. This, Kramer continues, “should allow us the opportunity to be textbook-free if we choose to. That’s pretty powerful.”

The parent portal, which enables parents to track students’ progress and communicate online with teachers, saves districts money on printing costs (from report cards to the forms sent home), Ackerlund says. Parents will enter their new address or phone number, and the system will automatically process that. “Districts are constantly under pressure to reduce the amount of money they spend,” he says. “They’re going to turn to their management systems, like SIS.”

Grade Books

Cedar Hill (Texas) Independent School District has turned to Skyward for paperless report cards, mobile access, grade books that send and receive student assignments, and compatibility with the state reporting system, called PEIMS (Public Education Information Management System), which collects demographic information, attendance, grades, completions and other data, says Kyle Berger, executive director of technology.

“You need not only usability on your teachers’ side but, on the back end, management reporting for your administration,” Berger says. The latter amounts to “a dashboard view into all levels,” he continues. For example, it produce a report for the human resources director on how close the district is in needing to add a full-time position based on increasing student enrollment. This broadening of SIS has made their functionality congruent with many school districts’ broad mission of educating all students to the best of their ability. “It is growth beyond just a grade book and a way to keep up with attendance, to the heart and soul of what a school district is,” Berger says.

Curriculum Management

In early May, Follett Software Company is scheduled to release the latest version of its Aspen software, which will have a curriculum management system built into its platform. This will include course management, grade books, blogging and discussion forums, and drag-and-drop document sharing, says Stephen Lyle, Follett’s program director.

“Over the years, we’ve seen student information systems tend to include spaces that previously were [stand-alone] products,” Lyle says. “What’s most valuable for teachers and schools, and even district and school leaders, is the integration of the content. … All of that presupposes a rich portal that students are logging into, that parents are logging into, and they’re able to consume those resources. That’s almost a given.”

Follett has worked to boost teachers’ and administrators’ ability to analyze and break down data—from student attendance to test scores to grades—by ethnicity, special education status or another variable. “That makes it a whole lot easier to see, Who are my students with attendance and conduct problems? Who are getting Ds and Fs?” Lyle says. The system does not provide solutions to those problems, he explains; rather, it just shines a spotlight on them to give administrators the opportunity to focus on where they need to intervene.

Teachers and administrators can then focus on students’ progress within the context of a detailed profile with the aforementioned data. “It’s really difficult to address a student’s needs when the view of that student is limited by the system you’re working in,” Lyle says.

Wilson of Edupoint sees curriculum management capability and mobile access as two of the key trends in SIS development. As teachers have become familiar with using these systems for grades and test scores, they’re moving to lesson planning with breakout groups based on those results and drilling down to individualized instruction. “We’re going into the classroom providing a deeper understanding of how curriculum and instruction affect results,” Wilson says.

Software as a Service

OnCourse Systems, which the Haddon Township School District in Westmont, N.J., uses, has worked to develop features like software-as-a-service, which means putting student data in the “cloud” rather than storing it locally on a server. A portal allows parents and students to see homework assignments and communicate with teachers daily, according to Chris Contini, OnCourse’s chief product officer. “Another thing we’ve been focusing on is the mobile aspect,” Contini says. “Users are pretty much demanding or expecting to be able to access one or more applications remotely through their tablet or phone.” He adds that districts have become less concerned about the potential risk of housing data online and more aware of the potential cost savings.

A cost comparison between software-as-a-service and an in-house installation should account for initial set up costs like the software licensing fee, software maintenance fee, hardware such as servers, and other software for functions like security and monitoring; along with year-to-year costs like operating system patches and upgrades, application patches and upgrades, monitoring and data backups, and hardware upgrades, Contini says.

The Haddon Township School District appreciates OnCourse’s scheduling capability, parental notification system, lesson planner, and ability to tie into and communicate successfully with the statewide N.J. Smart data management system, set up for district data administrators to collect and state education officials to examine information required under the federal Race to the Top program. That data includes enrollment, attendance, graduation and dropout rate, test scores, special ed results—in short, “virtually everything down to the number of days a week you wear white socks,” says Haddon Township School District Superintendent Mark Raivetz. “We’ve had better success than some of our colleague districts that have used other systems that are not as flexible.”

OnCourse also communicates successfully with Global Connect, the software program that Haddon Township uses for emergency notification. This has been a great help in, for example, navigating the increasing number of custody issues and court orders, Raivetz says.

“Custody issues are always a mess,” Raivetz says. With the new system, school secretaries “are not fumbling through folders to make sure that so-and-so can pick up Janey.”

Global Scholar similarly has developed software-as-a-service for its Pinnacle suite of products that integrate grades, instruction and evaluation, along with teacher effectiveness and performance management, according to Anthony Cross, senior director of product marketing for Global Scholar, which is unrelated to Global Connect.

The Pinnacle product provides the ability to conduct performance-based and profile-based scheduling, which means grouping students with common needs together—those with similar grades and test scores, for example.

The RTI Factor

Silverback Learning Solutions has created the Milepost system, which combines individualized learning and Response-to-Intervention with the focus on time, attendance and behavioral issues of the previous generation of student information systems, says Rudi Lewis, Silverback’s director of operations. “The emphasis of this is, ‘Let’s get data in the hands of teachers, let them impact instruction, then [aggregate for the use of] administrators,’” he says. “What do we do with all those numbers? How do we use those to change teaching strategy?”

The Response-to-Intervention movement has prompted teachers to move from managing data and creating student plans to building templates to undertake tier-based interventions—for example, these templates can outline the best steps to take for a second-grader who just needs slightly different assignments in class, and for one who needs to be pulled out because she’s already a grade level behind in reading.

Gooding (Idaho) School District has used Silverback’s Milepost system to replace the district’s former system of using Excel spreadsheets and highlight pens to trace a student’s achievement on different subjects over time. The new system spares teachers from having to track down previous teachers’ records and notes of what worked with each student and what didn’t, says Gooding Superintendent Heather Williams.

“It became kind of a one-stop shop,” she says, with demographics, student achievement data and response-to-intervention information. “That next-year teacher isn’t starting over. They’re able to continue that plan with that family and student.”

At the building level, principals can filter the data to see, for example, how fifth-grade girls are doing in math. “At the end of it, what does it all mean?” Williams says. “We have all kinds of data. How is it driving instruction? How is it driving achievement? Are we just being burdened by data, or is the data being used to make an impact on the student in the classroom?”

In answering his own questions, Williams says that the data allows him “to enter the conversation. It has improved transparency at the classroom and building level. Here’s where we’re not meeting our goals—are we aligning our resources to intervene there? Everybody is at the table instead of just the teacher. It opens the lid a little bit.”

Devise a Plan Before Jumping In

Contini advises district administrators need to think about what features they truly need before sitting down with a vendor to change or shift a system.

“In a lot of cases, districts will put out a massive master list of functional requirements, often copied from a neighboring district,” he says. “It’s often a 30-page document with everything in the world. It forces companies like ours to push the envelope and make sure we’re robust. But a lot of times, after implementation, 80 percent of the people are really only using 20 percent of the functionality.”

Cross agrees that district leaders need to step back and ask themselves what problems they’re truly trying to resolve before considering diving into what features they want. “Look at it from a requirement standpoint,” Cross concludes, “before you get into the nuts and bolts.”

Ed Finkel is a contributing writer for District Administration.