State seeking to solve Schoolnet problems

Three months ago, Cindy Sisson delivered a harsh review of the Schoolnet instructional management system — and before a powerful crowd.

Meridian’s curriculum director told a legislative committee that Schoolnet wasn’t being used in Idaho’s largest school district, because teachers weren’t getting reliable student data back from the state.  “I can’t train on a product that’s not accurate,” she said.

Today, Sisson is optimistic. She believes the state Education Department and  Schoolnet developer Pearson Education Inc. are trying to solve the system’s problems. But it will take time before the system is fully up and running in Meridian. In the meantime, she said Wednesday, “We’re having a lot of meetings.”

The multiple meetings — and the nagging Schoolnet complaints — are not unique to Meridian. Department and Pearson staff are fanning out around the state to see if they can get the beleaguered Schoolnet system to live up to its initial promise.

In May 2011, Schoolnet was hailed as an important step in getting accurate, real-time data in the hands of teachers, allowing them to develop individualized teaching plans to improve student performance. But the results have been uneven in the 53 school districts piloting Schoolnet.

The issue came to a head on Nov. 1. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which pledged a $21 million grant for the Schoolnet rollout, agreed to release the final $4.5 million grant installment, but said the money would be released in installments, “as measurable benchmarks are achieved.”

Roger Quarles, CIFS, studio portrait
Roger Quarles

The state is putting a matching $4.5 million into Schoolnet for 2013-14, and would assume ongoing expenses for the system after the three-year pilot period concludes.

The plan for the third year of the pilot, drawn up after a third-party review of Schoolnet, does not tie funding to any hard deadlines, deputy state superintendent Roger Quarles said in a recent interview. But he said Pearson and the Education Department, which helped draw up the plan, are committed to make it work.

The New York-based Pearson has assigned eight or nine staffers to the Idaho rollout. “They’re all in,” Quarles said.

The foundation grant allows the Education Department the flexibility to assign staff to the Schoolnet project as needed. Quarles, who started as the department’s chief deputy in August, says Schoolnet has been made his top priority.

Much of the challenge, in Meridian and elsewhere, comes down to getting timely, accurate student data back through Schoolnet.

Districts have been feeding student information into Schoolnet by way of a second state data portal: the Idaho System for Educational Excellence, the state’s new longitudinal data system. ISEE handles extensive demographic reports from the districts, which are filed on a monthly basis. Feeding data to Schoolnet through the longitudinal data system may have some advantages, but it is a “novel and complicated approach” to running Schoolnet, according the third-party review conducted by the Encinitas, Calif.-based Institute for Evidence-Based Change.

So now, the Education Department is looking for ways districts can work around ISEE. Thirty-eight of the Schoolnet pilot districts are using a system the department calls a “five-file” upload. Smaller student data reports are submitted nightly, and sent straight into the Schoolnet system, and teachers can access data through Schoolnet almost immediately.

While Education Department officials hail the “five-file” upload system, it still hasn’t solved Meridian’s problems. The district was still getting bad data back through Schoolnet, Sisson said, so Meridian will have to try yet another system.

A new data portal will be installed on Dec. 13, she said. If that portal provides accurate student data, Meridian’s work is just starting. The district will have to load its curriculum information into the portal, then start training teachers. She hopes the district will be able to pilot the system in 10 schools during the spring semester.

Despite the fits and starts, Sisson still believes Schoolnet could provide teachers with a one-stop shop to access student test scores, curriculum and online lesson plans. “It’s a great product if we can get it all up and running.”

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

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