Schoolnet grant will be linked to results

(UPDATED, 2:46 p.m., with comments from the State Department of Education.)

The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation says it will continue funding a data system designed to track student growth and performance — but funding will be provided in increments.

At issue is a $4.5 million grant for the Schoolnet system — an instructional management system that has been criticized by some Idaho school officials. The $4.5 million is the last installment of a $21 million Albertson Foundation grant to pilot the system. In 2013-14, the state is putting a $4.5 million taxpayer match into the pilot, covering system maintenance, operations and licensing.

“The foundation will release the final $4.5 million of the grant in installments as measurable benchmarks are achieved,” the foundation said in a statement dated Nov. 1.

It was not immediately clear what benchmarks will need to be met — and when the state might receive grant money. The foundation referred those questions to the State Department of Education, and Idaho Education News asked the department for details.

The Education Department worked out the funding arrangement with the foundation, and supports the plan, department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said Monday.

Schoolnet is designed to provide teachers with immediate access to student data — allowing them to fine-tune lesson plans to match student performance. Schoolnet is seen as the second phase of the Idaho System for Educational Excellence, the state’s longitudinal data system. ISEE also has come under some fire; some local school officials say the monthly reporting requirements are cumbersome, and have questioned the reliability of ISEE data.

While a third-party review found “several issues and challenges” in the Idaho pilot, the foundation says Schoolnet is a “viable” system that has worked well in other states. The foundation also says it makes sense to link Schoolnet with ISEE.

“The original concept of linking instructional management systems to longitudinal data systems remains a valuable project and all parties involved are committed to making the necessary changes to see the pilot through to successful completion,” the foundation said in its statement.

Said McGrath: “We are grateful to the Albertson Foundation for its continued commitment to improving data-driven instruction in Idaho. The work with the third-party evaluator was valuable, and we believe it will only improve the state’s pilot of Schoolnet across Idaho. The districts currently piloting Schoolnet have already made some progress in implementing Schoolnet and are eager to continue to move forward with the available grant funding.”

In May 2011, when the three-year, $21 million Schoolnet grant was announced, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna heralded the news as “an exciting day for Idaho students, teachers and school leaders.” But the rollout of the system — piloted at 51 school districts and six charter schools — has been uneven.

Some districts, saying Schoolnet has been fraught with glitches and errors, opted to drop the system in favor of a student data system created in the Blaine County School District and marketed by Boise-based Silverback Learning Solutions. Nearly three dozen Idaho school districts use Silverback’s Mileposts system — despite the fact that Mileposts costs districts about $5 per student, while Schoolnet is free to use.

Concerns over Schoolnet bubbled to the surface on Sept. 12, when a legislative education “interim committee” spent most of its first day-long meeting discussing data collection issues.

Some of the harshest criticism of Schoolnet came from Cindy Sisson, curriculum coordinator for the Meridian School District — Idaho’s largest district. While Meridian was an early Schoolnet adopter, the system is now basically on hold, Sisson told lawmakers. “I can’t train on a product that’s not accurate.” Also critical was Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a committee member. “Is (Schoolnet) working anywhere, for any purpose, to improve education?”

Lawmakers will again discuss student data issues Tuesday, when the interim committee holds its third meeting at the Statehouse. The committee will hear presentations from two school districts that use Mileposts, and a state Education Department presentation on Schoolnet. Also on Tuesday’s agenda: a presentation from Albertson Foundation Executive Director Jamie MacMillan.

Check back for updates on this story.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is funded through a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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