October 25, 2009

Faulty technology at the DoE:
Incompetence, or hiding the facts

The early weeks of the fall term is a very critical period for establishing which classes citywide are too large, and of course there's the year-round issue of keeping track of student attendance. Troubles with the DoE data systems have been mucking up the whole lot.

As to the issue of class size, the UFT sent a directive to all chapter leaders early in the term asking them to make sure principals equalized their registers by the tenth day of school (Sept. 15th). That's so it could file for arbitration on any violations of the class size limitations set out in Article 7M of the contract.

You can tell the size of your registers using your daily and weekly bubble sheets generated by ATS (Automate the Schools), which is defined by the DoE as:
A school-based administrative system which standardizes and automates the collection and reporting of data for all students in the New York City Public Schools. It provides for automated entry and reporting of citywide student biographical data; on-line admissions, discharges, and transfers; attendance; grade promotion; pupil transportation and exam processing; and many other functions. In addition, it has a school-based management component that supplies aggregate student data, human resources data, and purchasing information for use by school administrators and school-based management committees.
There might be other ways to determine class size, but as a teacher I only have access to the ATS printouts (that we're given for attendance-taking) and to ARIS. We can't access HS Scheduling and Transcripts (HSST), which is another data system used for scheduling, grade reporting, and transcripts.

These data systems control the information teachers need for two important things that affect how well they can teach and what they can be criticized for by not monitoring: oversized classes and attendance.

With regard to attendance, we bubble our homeroom class attendance onto daily ATS forms and all our other classes (including the homeroom once again) on weekly ones. The system is programmed to make automatic changes so that being absent in your class doesn't have to mean a student is absent for the whole day.

Our personal record-keeping, on hard copy rosters or Delaney cards, is a necessary duplication of this task and one that annoys everyone. (A colleague asks a very simple question, which I’ll just throw in here: If a school has scanners, and many do, why do teachers have to take attendance on bubble sheets at all? Kids can scan themselves into the building, THE END. If you learn they’re cutting your particular class, which they can tell you on a periodic printout, call home.)


This year, my registers were more unstable than usual . . .

. . . and there were other issues I've never seen before, such as students appearing or disappearing from the ATS sheets when I had actually seen printouts of schedules they’d just been given. Of course these should match — at least by Friday afternoon, when a new ATS set is printed for the following week. But, they didn’t always, and sometimes the changes were not showing up on the daily sheets either.

I had just about had it trying to take attendance on the bubble sheets by early October. It was a such mess that I checked two other data bases used by my school that teachers can get into: a local one that has to be manually updated from ATS by the tech person (which he tries to do daily) and the famous ARIS, which is supposed to tell you everything about your students.

Lo-and-behold, they neither matched each other or the set of ATS sheets I'd been given for the week. In fact, what ARIS produced was a list from Mars, including dozens of students whose names I had never even seen before. So, I just gave up with the databases and wrote the tech person at my school for advice on how to take attendance.

For the uninitiated, it is terribly inconvenient to teach students you can't precisely determine as your own.

Yet, we’re told all the time that attendance-taking is serious business. A big bad student may cut out of the building and get into trouble somewhere in the community and our records could be used in the investigation, blah, blah, blah. No one knows if that is true, but teachers can and do get those irreversible Letters in the File when admin tells us to do something and we don’t do it. So, if we're directed to call the parents about non-appearance or cutting, we really want to take care of it. Naturally, it's a terrible waste of time to work from inaccurate class lists. It's also sometimes a hazard, as long as power-wielding principals have the right to discipline us for anything that comes into their adversarial minds.


What I have learned is this

In early October, schools were informed that the DoE had done an "upgrade" of its systems and none of the data bases were actually "talking to each other." The system was apparently changed on Sept. 25th, and “nothing relating to ATS worked.”

Two people I’ve spoken with on this could not understand why upgrades weren’t done in the summer when attendance was low (summer school) or non-existent (vacation). Why wait until September when the DoE is contractually obliged to cough up real data on oversized classes?

I learned that HSST was changed to STARS, which is now being used by all high schools and some middle schools citywide. (I can’t find the term “STARS” on the DoE website or anywhere else: if someone knows, please respond in comments so we all can learn something). Two or three weeks of attendance was not getting printed correctly, and I was told that at on a certain number of days, all of last year’s graduates and discharged kids were now sitting in this year’s registers — having been given full schedules to boot! At that point, every class was over the contractual limits.

I have since seen a copy of the “ATS News” for Oct. 9th, in which the DoE reports the following (typos theirs, not mine):
HIGH SCHOOL ROSTERS: ATS prints daily attendance rosters based on data that we receive from HSST/STARS. The latest file we received was from 9/26/09. If the rosters appear to be using that older [word missing] it is because HSST/STARS was unable to pass ATS an updated file. They are working very hard to see that the newest schedules are passed to us.
That schools were not made aware of these problems until two weeks after they occurred is a disgrace.

(NOTE: On the same Oct. 9th "ATS News" there’s also this item, but I am not sure what these scan sheets are and whether the problem they’re talking about is very large and/or important:
INDICATOR SCAN SHEETS: We have rectified a problem with indicator scanning where the bubbled forms were not updating ATS. The fix for this problem was implemented during the evening of October 7, 2009. If your school has experienced this problem Please regenerate and bubble the indicator scan sheet then scan them in. They should now update correctly.)

Class sizes bigger than ever, but how would anyone really know?

In the Sept. 13th issue of The Sun, Elizabeth Greene reported that the state was asking the DoE to explain “how it failed to reach its own goal of reducing class sizes” with the money it had given them to do that. The DoE’s response was that its progress was “substantial” and they'll get back with more information. I wonder.

In the Sept. 23rd issue of the Queens Gazette, Dan Miller reported the following figures based on UFT information: 7,419 oversized classes citywide at the start of the year (5,450 in HSS, and 1,969 in all the rest), leaving some 225,000 students in these classes for all or part of each day.

In the Oct. 12th issue of the Daily News, Clare Trapasso said Queens bore the brunt of the overcrowding, holding more than half of the city’s then 6,749 oversized classes, which is up from last year.

A TJC spokesperson reports that in one high school they are taking no-show students off registers to put them “who-knows where rather than create additional classes.” I have wondered the same thing, as I see names come and go from my registers almost every day since school started.

How the city calculates class size was discussed by Arthur Goldstein’s in his Oct. 15th Gotham Schools post, and parent advocate Leonie Haimson (Class Size Matters) says she's been working on anomalies for a while now. She believes the system is inherently faulty. It’s set up to record two classes where only one exists (e.g., CTT/inclusion classes, and any two "sections” of the same course that meet in the same room at the same time with the same teacher), “which has the effect of bringing down reported class sizes below their actual levels. After two years of advocates warning about this issue, the DoE still has not fixed this problem."



You can actually find reports of anomalies and technological screw-ups going back years. The New York Observer reported on these last July, and JD2718 talked about tech issues on Sept. 6th of 2008:
As schools scramble to balance class sizes and give schedules to new students, the New York City Department of Education's computer scheduling system sputtered and stalled due to secret modifications . . . Every year since it was introduced, HSST has had September problems, and stalls or halts at least once. We understand, it is by design, the Department of Education steadfastly refuses to acquire sufficient servers for peak-load. It is “brown-out as a way of life.”

But this year? Boom! Three days without reports. Even reports on the “clients” failed. And it wasn’t the normal accident.
More than four years ago, on June 8th of 2005, Samuel Freedman wrote about HSST snafus in an article called "The System Is Down. Is That a Problem?" His answer at the time was: "It is, quite simply, too soon to tell."

But, it’s bloody well not too soon to tell anymore.

If Ms Haimson and others suspect incompetence and/or the “failure to properly align or update their enrollment systems,” I suspect worse.

In this era of Ed Deform, whose proponents push and pay for mammoth data systems, transparency, and accountability, another explanation for such enormous problems is entirely within reason: the BloomKlein DoE is intentionally mucking up attendance and enrollment to avoid responsibility, not only for the oversized classes, but for issues relating to special ed services and attendance — all of which have to do with money and political will. With the amounts the DoE spends, you just can’t have these entirely fixable kinds of mistakes year after year.

It's also acting irresponsibly to their employees, the teachers (who serve in loco parentis to some extent), and to parents, who have the right to know precisely where their kids are when they send them off to school.

And our Union?

They are certainly not making a stink about the faulty technology, the inane directives to teacher members regarding attendance, or all that time-consuming and duplicative attendance-keeping.

They're either falling for the DoE's excuses or they're complicit in the charade.



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