PowerSchool is a state-mandated system for gathering data about students that’s drawing its share of groans. But state officials say once it’s operating correctly it’ll make a difference
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 1/26/14  
Reprinted with permission.      

   PowerSchool is an odd name and one that parents of public school children have probably been hearing over the fall term.

   Teachers and administrators have been hearing it for a while longer. Some groan quietly at its mention.

   They are the ones doing “the real work on this,” said Philip Price, chief financial and information officer at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

   “It’s been a huge burden on school districts,” Price said. “They’ve been tremendous, especially in a year when they have not been getting a lot of support, financial and otherwise.

   “In the long run, (PowerSchool) will show tremendous benefits.”

   PowerSchool is a system the state uses to gather information on students, from attendance and grades to immunization and health records to teacher feedback and state-mandated reports.

   North Carolina has a contract with for-profit education giant Pearson School Systems to use PowerSchool. The information system is already used in 65 countries for about 10 million students. While it has been successful around the country, according to The Charlotte Observer, it had never been used by a school district as big as Charlotte-Mecklenburg or Wake County schools before this school year.

   What most parents will see is computer-generated report cards, attendance information and instructional materials. But if all goes as planned, PowerSchool will work with the state’s larger data system Home Base, which includes other computer systems, to tell teachers what is working, or not working, improve teaching and evaluate teachers and schools.

   STARTING AT THE beginning of this school year, all 115 North Carolina school districts started using the system by state mandate. The rollout had some bumps, Price admits.

   In the fall, Carol Vandenbergh, executive director of Professional Educators North Carolina, a nonpartisan teachers’ organization, said she had heard it compared to the rollout of the Obamacare website.

   Errors in attendance records and grades delayed report cards by four days in November. Transcripts for high school students were not accurate, affecting college applications.

   Alamance-Burlington School System high schools worked around the problem using the old system, NCWISE, to get “historical” transcripts, and attached current information and offered updated transcripts later, according to Julie Cozort, ABSS director of data integration and student information.

   According to weekly updates on Home Base from DPI, there have been slowdowns at high-traffic times, like when principals submit their monthly reports, fixed with regular restarts to the system. Teachers filing grades on the weekends have run into statewide maintenance weekends when they cannot get into the system

   A lot of this was to be expected, Price said. It was worse when the state rolled out NCWISE. He compares it to moving to a new house: Not every box gets to the right place.

   “We did that 1.5 million times,” Price said, referring to the number of students in N.C. public schools.

   Some of the problems DPI saw coming. Some were a surprise. Records for high-school seniors, for example, go back to kindergarten, meaning those records have had lots of time to get in the wrong places, in district data systems and in NCWISE.

   In a lot of cases, these fixes had to be done district by district, said Rosalyn Galloway, DPI’s manager for the conversion.

   Vandenbergh said the system seems to be improving.

   “The issue has definitely calmed down,” Vandenbergh said.

   PRICE SAID THE state never considered rolling PowerSchool out gradually as it did with NCWISE. For one thing, it would have meant getting information from two different systems, making things more complicated.

   For another thing, Price said, the state would have had to run both systems at $3.8 million for NCWISE and $3.4 million for PowerSchool. The state is still spending about $1 million this year to keep some of the NCWISE servers functioning during the transition.

   It also would have run into the end of the Federal Race to the Top funding that paid for Home Base. While federal funds did not pay for PowerSchool, Price said, it is the foundation of Home Base since it feeds information into the system. Price said it now looks like there could be an extension of that funding.

   The U.S. Department of Education awarded those funds based on a point system. States got points for what they planned to do, like create “a statewide longitudinal data system,” and “using data to improve instruction,” according to Department of Education documents.

   There have been many ideas on how to improve education over the years, but showing how well they work can be murky. Using data to track what schools are doing and how well they serve students seems to be the latest way to clear up the murk.

   As the funding behind this wave of education reform comes to an end, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will last.