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NCLB Outrages

HISD's software system gets an 'F' for frustration

Ohanian Comment:
The December 2005 memo (pdf file) Chancery issued announcing Houston's decision to choose "Chancery SMS to be the foundational software solution" notes that Houston made the decision after "a nearly 9-month investigation and review process." The memo is interesting for the glowing terms it uses to describe both Chancery and Houston.

Describing itself as "the world's leading education company," Pearson issued a memo on May 31, 2006, announcing its decision to acquire Chancery Software Ltd. The memo provides the NCLB connection:

Pearson is the market leader in the enterprise and student information systems business with an installed based of more than 16,000 schools. It provides SIS solutions for K-12 school districts combining student information, assessment, reporting, and business solutions to fulfill the accountability requirements set by No Child Left Behind through its SASI school server-based product and its Centerpoint web-based offering.

Elsewhere from Pearson

Testing the world's children

We mark school examinations for the US federal government, 20 American states, and thousands of UK schools. We are America's leading test scoring and reporting company, scoring more than 100 million multiple-choice tests and 30 million essays every year, as well as The National Assessment of Educational Progress (the only federal nationwide test); and college entrance exams.

By Jennifer Radcliffe

Just three months into the academic year, the Houston school district has racked up nearly $600,000 in overtime expenses and countless hours of lost teacher productivity because of problems with new student information software that cost $18.4 million.

Houston's launch of Pearson School Systems' Chancery software has been troubled since August, when thousands of student schedules weren't done in time for the start of school. The roughly 14,000 HISD employees who use the software have also struggled to record daily attendance, create progress reports and issue report cards.

Some teachers arrive on campus at dawn or stay past dark to log on when the system isn't backlogged. Others have resorted to keeping grades in old-fashioned gradebooks or using $100, low-tech software to print their progress reports, district leaders said.

"It's a failure of monumental proportions," school board member Harvin Moore said during Thursday's meeting with Pearson representatives. "There is a sense of this is a nice way to put it outrage among teachers that they can't do their report cards right now."

About 6,300 six-week report cards had to be reissued earlier this month because the originals were marred with mistakes. Teachers are struggling to log on to the gridlocked system to finish nine-week report cards by the Oct. 25 deadline.

"We don't want to sugarcoat the situation at all," Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said. "We're having great difficulty."

Software's troubled history

After spending nearly $30 million overhauling their business and payroll systems in recent years, Houston school trustees voted in August 2005 to replace the district's outdated student information software with the new $18.4 million Chancery interface.

At the time, HISD officials said they liked the system's ability to create a single record that remains with a student regardless of how often the student changes schools.

But Chancery, which is also used by the larger Chicago school system, has come under fire in other communities. The Howard County district in Maryland, for instance, has reported repeated problems since installing Chancery last summer.

In that district, report cards were late and had errors.

In Florida, the Orange County school system decided in March to suspend the use of Chancery's gradebook function after repeated problems surfaced in the $3.8 million system.

HISD officials said they were aware of the problems elsewhere and expected the conversion to come with some growing pains. Chancery, however, still beat out other firms, including Maximus and Skyward, during last year's bidding process.

Data entry obstacles

"There was no perfect fit on any system out there in the market," Saavedra said. But "these are challenges even bigger than what we anticipated, to be frank and honest with you."

School nurses, for example, had to navigate nearly 60 screens to enter a child's immunization records before the function was recently improved. And the system seems to come to a halt during high-traffic hours, Saavedra said.

Steven Dowling, president of Pearson's School Companies Group, assured the school board by speaker phone that his company is committed to making the launch a success. He acknowledged that it's off to a bumpy start.

"We're not satisfied," he said. "We understand the urgency and the importance of this."

To speed things up, the software was updated to bypass some of the frequent security checks and repetitive audits that teachers were required to complete as they enter data, officials said.

HISD may ask Pearson to reimburse some of the $600,000 it has paid in overtime to clerks and other employees They're talking to their attorneys about other allowances or protections that may be offered under the contract, Saavedra said.

HISD can't afford for its financial or academic ratings to be jeopardized because of bookkeeping snafus, he said.

"We're looking at all the options," Saavedra said. Ending the contract "certainly could be an option. We're starting to study that, but I don't think we're headed in that direction. ... That is not at this point our intent. Our intent is to succeed with this implementation."

School board member Larry Marshall said he's sure HISD will work through these kinks.

"This, too, is going to come to pass," he said. "We made a decision to implement this program. Now we have to make a commitment to see it through."


— Jennifer Radcliffe
Houston Chronicle


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