Budgets and Beyond

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Technology can help educators decide where their schools are going and how much it will cost to get there.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

At the aptly named Sunrise Middle School here, 35 teachers are witnessing the dawn of a new era in the ways information can help educators help students learn.

With a few clicks of the computer mouse, the teachers can delve into their students' past test scores, attendance patterns, or even health records to solve learning riddles.

In this transient community, roughly 40 percent of the students at the 1,500-student school will leave and be replaced during the school year. By probing district records using a special software tool, educators place incoming students into suitable classes as soon as they arrive, without relying on guesswork while waiting for printed transcripts--which often arrive well after the student does.

And teachers are finding revelations about entire classes. Using the technology, a science teacher discovered that many of the students in one of his advanced courses had poor reading skills and adjusted his teaching accordingly.

The 217,000-student Broward County district and IBM are in the midst of one of the most far-reaching experiments in the country to give teachers and principals vast amounts of information that will enable them to manage their own schools effectively.

Many educators have long agreed that reforming education by farming control out to schools yields little fruit if principals and teachers must work in an information desert.

But only now are districts beginning to install computer systems and software that open the information spigots in their schools and classrooms.

Power Sharing

The data systems that districts have used--and many still use--were designed to suck information toward the center, not pump it to the extremities.

The systems do a fine job of serving up aggregated information to state accountants and district planners, experts say. But they don't easily deliver specific information and are inaccessible to the people who are tackling the problems of individual schools or students.

As information technology has advanced and revolutionized the corporate world, school districts have also begun using technology to distribute information as widely as they have distributed decisionmaking power.

"There's been a move everywhere to getting site-based administrators information they need," says Anne Castleberg, a data-systems consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif., who has advised school districts for 18 years.

So far, adoption of these tools has been slow. Districts with outmoded computer systems must buy costly new ones and create districtwide networks. And some district officials struggling to cover the direct costs of serving their students conclude that the modernization will have to wait.

Yet several factors continue to push the new information trend forward: The public is demanding that schools be held more accountable for their performance.

Teachers as well as principals say they make different decisions when they have precise data about their resources and students--and have it on call rather than next week or next summer. And in some cases, states are nudging districts along and helping out with the costs.

Following the Money

Providing financial data is a key focus of this shift to school-based information.

States no longer are satisfied with districts simply accounting for their overall spending. They want spending broken out by school and presented in a form that legislators, school boards, and the public can understand.

"To operate effectively, you've got to know what your basic operational units are spending," says Oscar Perry, the associate superintendent of technology at the Georgia education department, comparing schools to businesses. "I don't know of any corporation today that operates effectively and doesn't have a very precise handle on expenditures of all the regional offices."

Many educators have long agreed that reforming education by farming control out to schools yields little fruit if principals and teachers must work in an information desert.

Georgia is one of several states that plan to distribute to all its districts a budget reporting tool developed jointly by the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The software tool, called InSite, runs on a personal computer, digesting data taken from the outmoded accounting systems used on many district mainframes.

The software first makes a copy of the general ledger in the district's accounting system. A district budget officer must map each line item from the general ledger to one of 32 detailed functions, a process that initially takes considerable time but needs only to be updated in subsequent years.

Once set up, InSite can quickly shuffle all budget or expenditure data and analyze how the district and its schools spend money.

For example, the tool can show for any school, program, or grade level how much money is spent on administration, operations, instruction, and capital projects. It also allocates, or charges, to individual schools the expenditures that are made centrally, such as bus service.

Advocates say such reports help clarify decisionmaking on school budgets, which often is muddied by the many different funding streams and uncertainty about how expenditures relate to a school's strategic goals.

"It moves decisionmakers on to more important questions," says Sheree Speakman, a partner at Coopers & Lybrand.

Hawaii's statewide school system uses the software tool, and Georgia, Rhode Island, and South Carolina plan to provide it for all their districts.

Many experts praise InSite's design. Bruce Hunter, the director of government relations at the American Association of School Administrators, says the tool has helped some districts show the public that many central-office expenditures are providing school-level services.

But others say it fosters central, not site-based, control because it is operated at the district office, not at school sites, and that it may lead to unfair comparisons among schools.

States are no longer satisfied with districts simply accounting for their overall spending. They want spending broken out by school and presented in a form that legislators, school boards, and the public can understand.

Other administrators, especially those in small districts with only a few schools, question whether it is really needed.

One state that has no interest in InSite is Kentucky. Robin W. Morley, the director of the state education department's division of integrated services, says Kentucky's 176 districts don't need it because the same functions are built into a standardized software package every district is adopting under school reform legislation.

The system processes payroll, tracks personnel records, and runs the general ledger. It also breaks down expenditures to the school level and allocates to schools the services provided by the district.

With the new system, data from districts and individual schools can be compared accurately throughout the state, Morley says.

The Whole Picture

In Broward County, administrators are working toward far more ambitious goals than passing out budget data.

They want to build systems that give schools unprecedented ability to manage their budgets, buy supplies, hire teachers, and tap into information about students, training, and operations.

Like many districts, Broward has followed that course as part of its efforts to give schools extensive control over their own operations.

Ultimately, administrators here want to create a multimillion-dollar unified system that puts both administrative and instructional data on tap in every school, says Joseph K. Kirkman, the district's director of education technology services.

A single system is cheaper to expand and maintain than several systems performing the same functions, he says. And records entered from anywhere in the system, such as from a school bookkeeper's personal computer, could be moved to other databases without retyping.

Most important, a unified, comprehensive system is able to saturate schools with a wide range of useful data--a necessity for school-level innovation, where "all the old constants of the learning environment have now become variables," Kirkman says.

Broward isn't there yet, he says, but is getting close. The district is developing specifications for the final major element: a software tool to help teachers match learning plans for individual students with libraries of curriculum items, learning activities, and teaching tips.

The foundation for the system is a districtwide network of powerful IBM AS400 computers, including one at every school. The size of small filing cabinets, the machines are gateways--guarded by multilayered security checks--into the purchasing and payroll systems and its banks of information about students and teachers at the district's data-processing center.

From the Macintosh computer in her office at 1,200-student Pompano Beach Middle School, Principal Barbara Barrs can monitor the school budget, scan inventories of books and computers, check class lists for field trips, and even call up a quick medical profile of a child who is injured.

School employees routinely enter data into the district system, such as student behavior infractions and their consequences. Attendance is entered by a bar-code system the school recently purchased--a school secretary can scan attendance cards for every student much as a store clerk scans cereal boxes at the checkout.

Barrs recalls her days as an elementary teacher a dozen years ago, when her principal spent hours organizing classes by sorting piles of index cards. She says the new database lets her test different student groupings in minutes, and she can build in subtleties such as separating troublemakers from students who are emotionally handicapped.

To organize class rosters for a new year, Barrs pulls up lists of test scores and groups students so that each class has a mix of high and low achievers.

"Heterogeneous grouping" was a site-based decision, she says. No teacher can say, "'My scores are low because I have low[-achieving] students.'"

'Data Warehousing'

It's not just principals who can take advantage of the new tools; school networks put many of them within reach of classroom teachers.

At Sunrise Middle School, a 20-minute drive from Pompano Beach, teachers use laptop computers and a sophisticated new software system to analyze student data.

The Fort Lauderdale school is one of three test sites in Broward's project with the International Business Machines Corp. to develop "data warehousing" tools--the type of technology that supermarket chains use to study purchasing patterns.

"It has given us the opportunity to track students, to help us understand them," says Principal Phillip Patton.

Last fall, 35 teachers were given laptop computers and trained in "query software" that burrows into the district databanks to retrieve student information. They can then plug that data into spreadsheets or colored pie charts for analysis.

So far, the system goes back two full school years--enough to give Sunrise teachers a backward glance at their students in any Broward elementary school. They don't, however, have access to all student data--discipline records are off-limits.

Teachers as well as principals say they make different decisions when they have precise data about their resources and students.

Though the Sunrise teachers say they're still using the query tool sparingly, it has delivered some notable insights into student performance and helped them avoid some placement and pedagogical blunders.

Last winter, when one teaching team examined the elementary test scores of their students, they were surprised to find that among those who scored low in reading were several 8th graders who were taking advanced algebra.

Because they excelled in algebra, those students hadn't been considered for remedial reading help--a potentially damaging oversight, says Erin Harrel, a language arts teacher.

Dealing With Problems

Another teacher, John Turano, ran a query and discovered similar reading deficits in many of the students in one of his 7th grade science classes. With that knowledge, he has changed his teaching strategy. "I must be more verbal," he says. "Do more on the board, assign more projects."

Turano, who has taught for less than two years after a long career as an executive at a rental-car company, says the data system is helping him become a better teacher.

"It has helped me deal with problems, with the kids who can go either way."

With a quick search, Turano can find out when a poor-performing student started going off track: "Was it in middle school or elementary school? Was it because he moved from school to school or had a medical problem we never knew about?"

Better data can also help move discussions between teachers and administrators to sounder footing. For example, if a principal tells a teacher that his class has a high absentee rate, a query might show that many of the absences were excused, which broadens the discussion to include the approval process at the school office.

"It clarifies dialogue," Turano says, "so there's not so much finger pointing."

Vol. 16, Issue 36, Page 24-25

Published in Print: June 4, 1997, as Budgets and Beyond
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