DA op-ed: Avoiding hoops in public education

By: | May 29, 2019

Zach Vander Veen is the former director of Technology for the Hamilton City School District, and is cofounder and VP of instruction at Abre Inc.

Like most educators, I entered the profession to focus on what matters—teaching kids. That said, my first week of teaching always consumed an embarrassing amount of hours filling out and filing paperwork, verifying I conformed to that year’s district initiatives, or generally puzzling out what various new education acronyms meant for my day-to-day work.

Moving into administration, those hours only grew because of the complexities of the job. Some days it was hard to shake the nagging feeling that my time didn’t match up with the objective of growing students. I felt like I spent excessive time on the process rather than the end results.

I often hear teachers and administrators talk about software and processes as “jumping through hoops.” It’s not hard to find examples. Teachers need to enter grades in both their LMS and their gradebook. Administrators need to use vlookups across seven spreadsheets to create simple reports. Parents require six different logins to get a picture of how their students perform. Jumping through hoops means performing all kinds of extra tasks that consume time and attention while not teaching students.

Hoops are bad and, when possible, should be avoided. Successful edtech developers who pay attention to solving hoops generate goodwill among end users. But what are the characteristics of a hoop?

Six characteristics of hoops in education

1. If the process creates more work and results in the same – or worse – outcome, it’s a hoop.
I frequently encounter software and procedures that add unnecessary complexity to a problem. For example, most schools use a Response To Intervention (RTI) model to provide tiered instruction to students. RTI works and is grounded in good evidence (John Hattie claims it has an effect size of 1.29). However, the implementation of RTI via messy forms, confusing user interfaces for software, and excessive procedures often leads to teachers spending more time jumping through the hoops of RTI rather than meeting the needs of the individual learner.

2. If there’s no problem defined, it’s a hoop.
When learning about a school and its procedures, I always like to ask, “Why do you do it this way?” Frequently, the answer I encounter is, “because we’ve always done it this way.” Scratch a little deeper, and I often find a legacy problem that long since ceased to exist. For example, I once discovered teachers completing triplicate copies of textbook inventories even though the media specialists tracked every textbook (online and physically) via their database. You know you’re dealing with a hoop when it becomes difficult to define the problem you’re trying to solve.

3. If it comes from the state, it’s (likely) a hoop.
I don’t mean to disparage state departments of education who are tasked with the role of implementing various laws. Translating law into practice and policy is challenging. The state’s objectives and the educator’s objectives don’t necessarily overlap or take the same level of priority. Furthermore, state officials tend to have rigid policies and procedures of their own. Consequently, teachers and administrators conform to the needs of the state rather than their classrooms.
I worked in a state that passed a resident educator program directive. After a teacher graduated from University, they were essentially required to repeat all the classes and assignments over a four year period while teaching. This fits the very definition of a hoop.
I don’t mean to belittle legislatures. Many education laws are passed with good intentions to address specific goals of helping students. That said, laws frequently have unintended consequences that result in hoops. Also, many legislators were never teachers. This brings me to the next main characteristic of a hoop.

4. If it comes from someone who’s never been in the classroom, it’s likely a hoop.
A classroom has a million moving parts that fall into a wide range of domains (academic, emotional, economic, social, etc.). I’m often struck by how many software developers and policy makers don’t understand this key fact. Teachers juggle. You can’t throw another ball into the act without taking one away. For example, our state recently implemented a new law requiring educators to track hours of attendance rather than days. While I’m sure such a law was well intended, it did not take into effect how much disruption occurred with daily procedures, students attending classes off campus, and software rewrites.

5. If it takes hours and hours of professional development, it’s likely a hoop.
This characteristic particularly applies to software. We – and our students – live our lives online. We understand the norms and rules of a user interface. If a software or process takes hours and hours to learn, it likely needs a redesign with a focus on user experience. If a software vendor sells their training and customer support harder than their software you might want to question the quality of the software.

6. If it looks like a hoop, it’s probably a hoop.
If a process requires you or someone else to perform multiple, complicated steps that involve many different hands and inputs, then it’s a hoop.

Advice for edtech developers

The common theme here is time. Hoops consume time. Given that time is finite, this means teachers who have to “jump through hoops” spend less time focusing on teaching students. With that in mind, I recommend EdTech Developers to keep some simple rules present when designing software solutions to help educators.

Build towards saving time for teachers. Always.
Design your product with teachers. Bring them into the conversation at every part of the process.

Find common frameworks—education and technology—and use them in the design process. Common frameworks provide shared vocabulary and help educators and students easily understand how to use your product.

Build tools that can communicate seamless with other software. Yeah, that interoperability thing. It makes all software more efficient and saves admins and teachers time.

Understanding hoops in education can help developers give back time to educators and allow them to really focus on what matters—Student Learning.

Zach Vander Veen is the former director of Technology for the Hamilton City School District, and is cofounder and VP of instruction at Abre Inc.


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