Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pearson PowerSchool Disasters in NC and Tech Lessons to Be Learned From It

I have always fundamentally understood that when it comes to implementation of new innovations, whether technological, instructional or organizational, it is a cardinal rule to “Not implement too much at once!” I’ve heard that mantra during my whole career as an educator, and even as a classroom teacher we have been cautioned not to try to change too much too fast. In school leadership, they tell you the same thing. Trying to implement too much, too fast, usually results in nothing being implemented well or at all.

It’s too bad the state of North Carolina recently forgot this important wisdom when it took on implementing Pearson’s PowerSchool student data system, a new online educator evaluation system called NCEES, or North Carolina Educator Evaluation System, and a new teaching assessment resource system called Schoolnet. Now that we are one-half year in with implementation, all three systems have been been so buggy as to be almost unusable.

About four years ago, Pearson purchased the company that supported North Carolina’s Student data system called NC WISE. Pearson then informed the state that it was shutting down support for NC WISE. Naturally, North Carolina then purchased Pearson’s PowerSchool software to provide the state with a state-wide student data system. In addition, North Carolina won a considerable sum of money from its Race to the Top application, and a portion of this was used to create a “one-stop data portal” for all the data educators need. State education officials called this portal “Home Base.” Through “Home Base,” educators theoretically can access  three programs and all the data they could possibly want. One is PowerSchool which is the state’s student data depository and teacher grade book. Next is the NCEES or the North Carolina Educator Evaluation System, and Schoolnet, which is a source that helps teachers with formative assessments tied to state testing. The idea was that educators would have one portal to access each of these important programs. While all three have been failing to work as intended, PowerSchool seems to have the greatest impact on school operations and on kids and it has caused one problem after another.

Now, it’s January, and there are still enormous issues with the system. In PowerSchool, students’ transcripts aren’t always accurate. Schools can’t access discipline incident features, and sometimes report cards can’t be printed. We can’t even trust attendance data on report cards right now due to issues with software. The list of failures for this program is way too long list in this blog post. The short of it is that there’s a whole lot of educators and staff in this state frustrated with this software and its gazillion bugs. I’m not even sure Pearson, nor the state education department can even repair its image after this fiasco. In addition, PowerSchool is beginning to become the butt of many, many jokes among educators. Say the name, and many times there is a collective groan in the room. When I have to tell a parent that I can’t print them a report card right now because of some technical issue in the program, or I have teachers frustrated repeatedly because they can’t get in to take attendance; that’s a pretty good sign that PowerSchool as a product fails to provide the service it’s supposed to provide.

Tech support is also non-existent or sparse. If you can ever get someone in tech support to answer your email, you usually get the answer, “We’re working on it.” That too is hardly acceptable. Should it not be worked on before it’s used? Would I want my car dealer to tell me as I drove off, “Come in next week and we’ll add the brakes?” If my cell phone service or cable provider were to tell me that for even two or three days, I would be looking to change providers. Perhaps North Carolina needs to do the same. If Pearson can’t deliver a product that streamlines and makes it easier for educators to do their jobs, then maybe we need to find another product.

Now those still trying to salvage this sinking ship will try to tell you that there are always bugs when you try to implement something new. Yes, there are always issues, but what we’re dealing with here is a “Pestilential PowerSchool Swarm of bugs” that should be embarrassing to those who still advocate for this product. When I go to my computer, I shouldn’t feel dread when I realize I have to access Home Base. It should fit my experience as a user seamlessly. But that isn’t how it is with PowerSchool or NCEES or Schoolnet. Instead, when someone calls me wanting a schedule, I am overcome with dread as I click on my PowerSchool shortcut icon. Will it work this time? Will I be able to easily find the information I want? The odds are perhaps 50-50 or 20-50, depending on the time of day, week or month. It might even prove impossible.

In my opinion, North Carolina and Pearson have forgotten some fundamental principles that could have guided their implementation and avoided all the issues we face with Home Base, PowerSchool and NCEES. Here’s some advice, and some lesson principles we might learn from this experience.

1. Limit implementation. Instead of trying to implement 3 new data systems at once,  try one. The problem is we have three new programs and neither of them is working well 6 months into implementation. Why not try to get one implemented and working rather than having three that fail to work properly. You can save a great deal of frustration for everybody by being realistic in your implementation plans. Start small and add, rather then hit everybody with everything at once.

2. Realize that a data system or program can’t possibly do everything. Far as I know, the PowerSchool program as Pearson originally designed might function well. North Carolina has obviously asked for all these updates and revisions to make the system its own. Perhaps it’s time to take a realistic assessment of the software limitations and just realize it can’t do all that we would like it to do. When programs get complicated; things go wrong. Just ask Microsoft or even Apple. Get a program that operates well, then you can have an experimental version operating on the side to try new features and ideas. You can’t sail a ship as you build it!

3. Keep it simple.  Steve Jobs understood this well. When anything---software to TVs----get more and more complicated; then more and more can go wrong and usually does. So what if you can claim your student data system does all these things. But what good is it if it does none of those things well? Simple is good. Keep the user experience simple. Complexity is only good when it’s simple.

4. Always keep the end user in mind. This is just plain common sense. Software manufacturers know this. You can’t sell a product that makes its users miserable. When designing any student data system, you must always keep those using it in mind. Perhaps it would be neat to add the ability to enter disciplinary data into the system. But if doing so makes the user experience more difficult, then table the idea until you can incorporate and reflect on the user experience. Keeping the end user in mind at all times means making sure you know who your users are and what they need to be able to do to successfully operate from day-to-day.

In some ways, North Carolina’s struggles with PowerSchool, NCEES, and Home Base is symptomatic of a greater problem we have in education. In our zeal to make things better, we sometimes make things worse. Also, instead of letting what we do as educators----teaching and learning---drive how we design what we do, we let the stuff---the technology----drive what we do. Our data systems should not dictate what we do in our schools; they should not even be noticeable. I certainly should not dread using them. There are major issues with these systems. Perhaps its time to start with just the imperatives; what must our data systems do to facilitate the operation of our schools. Then, we build that first and make it work.

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