Tech. Tools for Managing Schools Face Stagnant Market
The market for technology tools that help power districts' administrative and operational functions has lagged, although some observers predict a rebound in the near future.
"Enterprise and back-end systems have to be maintained. That can't be delayed much longer," said Denise Atkinson-Shorey, the CEO of ed-tech consulting firm e-Luminosity and the leading researcher behind a 2014 survey of district informational-technology leaders.
That report, commissioned by the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, along with a 2013 survey of the U.S educational technology market conducted by the Software & Information Industry Association, or SIIA, a trade group also based in Washington, highlight the recent stagnation in the administrative-tools market for K-12 schools.
Sellers of technology systems for services such as accounting, human resources, and student-information management reported a nearly one-third drop in revenue during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent for which data are available.
"I was shocked," said John Richards, the president of Newtown, Mass.-based Consulting Services for Education and the author of the SIIA report.
Tight state and district budgets are likely one big contributing factor: In the COSN survey, more than half of district IT leaders report not having sufficient funding to invest in new technology assets, and more than two-thirds report that delaying replacement of existing technology systems is their primary strategy for overcoming budget shortfalls.
Experts also believe school officials are concerned about making too many changes too quickly: With new academic standards, new assessments, and new classroom technologies already stressing school systems' capacity, many districts are likely hesitant to take on a high-stakes overhaul of their financial-management systems, they say.
And many districts may also be waiting out a shifting market. Both makers of legacy systems and smaller startup companies are still attempting to address the biggest back-end challenge districts face—how to securely integrate a wide variety of educational data across multiple systems, departments, and functions.
"I think a lot of districts are saying, 'Let's step back and better understand where things are going,' " said Mark Schneiderman, SIIA's senior director of education policy.
Sticking With What Works
Michael A. Jamerson, the director of technology for Indiana's 11,400-student Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation, said his district is content to keep its decade-old human-resources and financial systems in place.
"They've been through several version upgrades, and they continue to work well for us and meet our needs," he said.
Districts' purchasing cycles for back-end services are much longer than those for instructional services, Mr. Jamerson said, and their needs around services such as payroll or document imaging haven't changed nearly as rapidly as their needs for new classroom technologies.
That's been especially true in recent years, as digital learning materials and online assessments have evolved at breakneck speed. While revenue from digital content grew by about 20 percent from 2010-11 to 2011-12, district spending on central-office tools (not counting student-information, content-management, or data IT systems) reported by those vendors surveyed in the SIIA report dropped from $63 million to just $18 million.
Mr. Richards of Consulting Services for Education predicted, however, that classroom-technology spending will soon carry over to districts' back-end operations.
"You can't do [online assessments or all-digital content] without a modern student-information system or modern database resources," he said. "The new emphasis on data-driven decisionmaking means you have to have the software that allows you to do it."
That's been the trajectory followed by the 17,000-student Sunnyside Unified district, near Tucson, Ariz. Most students there have had their own laptops for the past three or four years, and Sunnyside has made major investments in digital curriculum, said Superintendent Manuel S. Isquierdo. As a result, he said, "we wanted an sis that was more interactive, more robust, and more comprehensive."
After 10 years using a product from the Blaine, Minn.-based company Infinite Campus, the Sunnyside district recently switched to PowerSchool, made by London- and New York City-based Pearson.
"We try to make technology part of our operation's DNA," Mr. Isquierdo said. "To really be tech-proficient, you need more current products."
The advantages of the new system, the superintendent said, include more "interchangeability," greater opportunities to integrate with other systems, and more real-time data for use in administrative decisions. In the Sunnyside district, PowerSchool will become a key part of everything from instructional decisionmaking to teacher observations, in addition to its administrative functions, Mr. Isquierdo said.
New Tools Emerging
Newer back-end technology tools—especially those that make academic, administrative, and operational data easily accessible and decipherable—are also starting to draw the attention of school officials.
In addition to purchasing Pearson's PowerSchool, for example, the Sunnyside district also recently adopted a new geovisual-analytics software tool from GuideK12, a 25-year-old Eagen, Minn.-based company that overhauled its education offerings two years ago.
CEO Charles P. Amos said he has recently seen growing interest from districts looking for help redrawing school boundaries, managing facilities, planning for emergencies, and more.
"Heretofore, information was available somewhere, just not at the fingertips of key decisionmakers," Mr. Amos said. "Our approach is really to put a visual tool in the hands of administrators who aren't [geographic information system] experts."
That's appealing to many district leaders, said Mr. Schneiderman of SIIA. But for the most part, he said, the tools and apps being developed by startups and smaller companies such as GuideK12 might fill an important niche, rather than comprehensively meet districts' ultimate back-end needs.
"They are generally not enterprise-level tools. They're generally not set up for system-level analytics. And they're generally not designed to export data back into other systems or other vendors," Mr. Schneiderman said.
Sooner, rather than later, more districts will be forced to plunk their money down on solutions, even if imperfect, Ms. Atkinson-Shorey of e-Luminosity said.
But exactly where those dollars will go will ultimately be determined in large part by contextual factors that remain up in the air, such as the online common-core-aligned assessments to be administered next year, the Federal Communications Commission's planned overhaul of the federal E-rate program for subsidizing telecommunications purchases, and dozens of pieces of pending state legislation related to student-data privacy.
"Anything that's not tied directly to the classroom hasn't been getting funded for the past few years," Ms. Atkinson-Shorey said. "That can't happen forever."
Vol. 33, Issue 35, Page s18Published in Print: June 11, 2014, as Tools for Managing Schools Face Stagnant Purchasing