After investing eight years and more than $130 million, the New York City school system is shelving a glitchy information system that was supposed to track special education students, but fell far short of expectations.
The long, expensive saga of New York’s Special Education Student Information System has elements that are unique to the nation’s largest school district, which has enough students with disabilities—about 224,000—to make up a school system of their own.
But the problems with the system also illustrate issues that school districts of all sizes face. Schools and districts around the country are working to build data systems for a variety of needs, said Rachel Anderson, the director of policy and practice for the Data Quality Campaign.
But “those systems haven’t always been designed to match the needs of teachers and families,” said Anderson, whose organization advocates for effective education data use.
A 2011 survey conducted on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, found that only about half of teachers reported being happy with their district’s student information system; many said they didn’t feel well trained on how to incorporate that information into classroom instruction. And a 2018 survey from the Data Quality Campaign found that while most teachers valued having data, more than half said they didn’t have enough time during the school day to access and use it.
In the case of New York, the city school system faced numerous pressures to move away from a cumbersome, paper-based system to a process that promised more accurate and timely tracking.
One of those incentives was financial: School systems are allowed to receive Medicaid reimbursement for providing certain services, like occupational therapy, to qualified students. But tracking those services and making sure they meet federal compliance requirements has been a long-running problem for the state of New York as well as for the city school system. In 2009, the state and the New York City district were ordered to give back more to the federal government more than half a billion dollars in cash and in reimbursement claims that the New York agencies agreed to release. The Justice Department said the city and state’s claims were not properly documented, or weren’t covered by Medicaid.
The new system went online in 2011, but was a problem from the start. According to a district audit in 2016, at one point the system was malfunctioning more than 800,000 times a day.
“Working with SESIS was like working with a pen running out of ink,” said Brad Alter, a special educator who worked in a co-teaching environment, teaching math and science to 6th graders and 9th graders. He is currently a member representative with the United Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union that represents most teachers in the city system.
And it wasn’t complex tasks that were the sticking points for SESIS, Alter said. One huge problem is that the system does not automatically save input; Alter said he got in the habit of saving his work after nearly every sentence he typed, just so he wouldn’t lose it all.
“If you’re trying to write something meaningful and you lose an hour’s worth of work, put yourself in that person’s shoes,” Alter said.
Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator for New York’s Advocates for Children, said the program “didn’t allow anyone to know if any one student was getting their services in a timely or complete manner.” Parents were sometimes waiting weeks to see updated individualized education programs for their children because it took so long for school staff to enter new information into the system, she said.
Though the school system made improvements along the way, it still had to pay educators more than $38 million in back pay in 2013 because they were forced to enter student data on their own time.
In 2016, a working group conducted an assessment of SESIS that offered a number of recommendations, including moving to a new system. The district plans to release a “request for expressions of interest,” a step that comes before a request for actual proposals to do the work.
“We want the best, most modern system in place in order to meet the needs of our students with disabilities. Our investments have greatly improved SESIS over the past two years, and have put us in position to take this next step. We’ll engage families, staff, and communities throughout the process,” said Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education, in a statement.
Moroff said that the city must continue monitoring students in special education while making plans to replace its current system.
“As flawed as the data collection with SESIS was, they were working on making it better,” she said. “We want to make sure this interim period is a thoughtful period, and that there’s data collection that continues as well.”
The promise to loop in multiple stakeholders is important, said Anderson, with the Data Quality Campaign.
“What we always encourage is to not start with the solution, but start with the questions,” she said. “That’s where we’ve seen states and districts be successful—when they start with what they’re trying to do, and go from there.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Shelving Troubled Special Education Data System