With schools starting to open for the 2014-2015 academic year across the United States, one can confidently predict that there will be several news stories of snarls, snafus, and hitches with new academic IT supports systems as they go live for the first time. (You may may recall that happening in Maryland, New York, and Illinois a few years ago.)
While most of these “teething problems” are resolved during the first week or so of school, significant IT issues affecting the performance of the new integrated student educational tracking system recently rolled out in the Los Angeles Unified School District—the second largest in the country with 650,000 students—has already stretched beyond the first few weeks of the school term with no definitive end in sight. Furthermore, the many software bugs being encountered were known by LAUSD administrators, but they decided to roll out the system anyway.
The new system, called My Integrated Student Information Systems (MiSiS), was launched during the teachers' preparatory week before classes officially began on 11 August. Unsurprisingly, it did not go well. In fact, a few days prior to launch, LAUSD’s chief information officer Ron Chandler was quoted in the LA Times as saying that he expected the MiSiS launch “to be bumpy.” Chandler also added for emphasis, “It’s going to be messy. The question is just how messy.”
While some modules of MiSiS were rolled out last year, a more complete version was piloted during summer school this year and was claimed by LAUSD administrators as performing acceptably. Even under these more benign conditions, summer school staff noted several operational defects that needed fixing. While many were apparently fixed by early this August, a large number still remained open as MiSiS went live. In addition, MiSiS apparently was not fully stress tested as a complete system and under expected load conditions before its launch.
According to the Costra Contra Times, soon after MiSiS went live, staff across the school district began reporting issues ranging from painfully slow system performance to not being able to access student records at all. Other staff members reported that they were finding many of their students had been given the wrong class assignments, or worse, had not been assigned any classes at all.
Compounding the technical problems reported, the required user training on MiSiS for the more than 29,000 LAUSD teachers and school administrators was not completed before classes started, meaning there was a large number of school staff not fully trained on how to use MiSiS at its launch. So when problems were reported to the LAUSD IT department, it wasn’t clear how many were true technical problems versus user-unfamiliarity problems.
During the first week of school, local newspapers started reporting even more problems were cropping up with MiSiS. Some middle school students, for instance, were being placed in high school classes; while some teachers reported that they found 70 students assigned to their classes. At the end of the week, LAUSD administrators told teachers not to use MiSiS to take attendance until this week, so LAUSD IT specialists could have time to work on the system. LAUSD acknowledged at the same time that there were 130 known issues with MiSiS that needed to be worked through.
The second full week of school was less chaotic, but school staff and teachers were still reporting problems, even though LAUSD administrators insisted that MiSiS was working acceptably. School staff, on the other hand, reported they still were finding students with incorrect or missing class assignments which created classroom disruptions. Special education teachers reported MiSiS issues were proving especially troublesome. MiSiS performance wasn’t markedly faster, either.
However, LAUSD administrators tried to downplay the problems being reported, calling them merely a “blip” that everyone would soon forget. Administrators insisted that only about 6,500 students were affected by MiSiS-related issues, which they said wasn’t bad considering that MiSiS, according to CIO Chandler, was “easily one of the most complex technology programs going on in the planet right now.”
A bit of hyperbole that, I think.
LAUSD teachers unions strongly challenged the administrators' 6,500 figure, calling it a gross under-reporting of the true number of students affected. They demanded that MiSiS immediately be scrapped and that LAUSD revert back to the old student record management system, which the unions claimed worked much better.
That is not likely to happen unless MiSiS completely falls over dead. The reason is that MiSiS is the end product of a very long and convoluted series of court cases going back to 1993. In that year, the mother of a student named Chanda Smith sued the LAUSD for allowing her daughter to reach—and twice flunk—the 10th grade when it was known that her daughter had a documented learning disability for which she received special tutoring in middle school. Although Smith’s mother tried repeatedly to get Chanda into special education classes in high school, the LA school administrators refused to do so. The lawsuit soon turned into a class action suit as other parents of disabled students also complained about their children not receiving the educational help they required or had received previously.
To make a long story short, in 1996, LA’s school board acknowledged that the school system had violated state and federal laws on the treatment of disabled students, and entered into a court approved consent decree [pdf] detailing how it would improve the education of the school districts disabled students. There was a list of a dozen and a half or so of improvements LAUSD agreed it would make over the next five years, including the implementation of an automated student tracking system so that abled and disabled childrens' educational progress could be assessed and tracked from kindergarten to the end of high school.
However, LAUSD was slow to implement the changes it had promised, saying they were too expensive. In 2001, it was sued again, this time for non-compliance with the 1996 consent decree. In 2003, after much legal wrangling, a modified consent decree (pdf) was signed, under which LAUSD was to have made good on a new set of agreed improvements. The LAUSD promised these would be implemented by the end of 2006, including (once again) the implementation of a comprehensive student tracking system. The courts appointed an independent monitor who would assess and have significant power to say whether the LAUSD was indeed meeting the terms of the modified consent decree.
Progress on meeting the improvement objectives was steady, but still extremely slow. One of the bottlenecks was the implementation of that comprehensive student tracking system. From 2003 to 2009, LAUSD worked to implement an integrated student information system (ISIS), purchasing a commercial product called SchoolMax as a way to speed the process along. The LA Times reports that LAUSD spent $112 million on this effort.
However, LAUSD found, in its words, “many challenges with software development and SchoolMAX’s performance.” So, in 2012 LAUSD approached the independent monitor with a plan to internally redevelop the student tracking system used at the Fresno Unified School District, which he approved. The LAUSD claims that the new system, which the LA Times said cost $20 million to develop and now called MiSiS, would offer “greater flexibility, user-friendliness, and cost effectiveness.”
The hope is—assuming that MiSiS can be fixed—that LAUSD might finally get out from under the consent decrees stretching back to 1996.
This helps explain why the LAUSD administrators made the decision to roll-out MiSiS a few weeks ago, warts and all, and why it will never revert to back to a student tracking system that isn’t compliant with the 2003 modified consent decree. It will be interesting to see whether the independent monitor believes MiSiS actually does now meet the terms of the decree’s mandate. If the system is still buggy by the end of this year, and if special education teachers are still complaining about it, I suspect he will be none too sympathetic to lifting the modified consent decree.
One person who is definitely not pleased at the moment is LAUSD school board member Tamar Galatzan, who is calling for a full audit of MiSiS and the decisions behind its “bumpy” launch. Galatzan claims the school board was not informed of the potential MiSiS problems until the news hit the media.
MiSiS isn’t the only IT issue involving the LAUSD, either. Last week, the LA Times reported that an internal LAUSD analysis of the school district’s $1 billion initiative to provide an Apple iPad to every student “was beset by inadequate planning, a lack of transparency and a flawed bidding process.”
That sounds surprising familiar to what occurred a few years ago in regard to the LAUSD payroll system fiasco. A school district that doesn’t learn from past mistakes—more than a bit ironic, wouldn’t you say?
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Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.