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.

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