time for an upgrade

New York City reveals new plans to upgrade its dysfunctional special education data system

The city’s deeply flawed special education data system will soon have a new group of staff members dedicated to fixing its longstanding problems.

Education officials confirmed Friday that the department has created a dozen new full-time positions for staffers to help fix the Special Education Student Information System, known as SESIS. The city also plans to spend about $6.3 million over five years for software upgrades and additional maintenance.

But the extent to which those investments will fix the system, which is used to track learning plans for the city’s 212,000 students with disabilities, remains to be seen.

SESIS has been mired in technical problems since it was launched in 2011 and has cost the city at least $130 million to develop. Early on, the glitchy, burdensome system resulted in so many educators entering information at night and on the weekends that an arbitrator forced the city to pay out $38 million in overtime.

More recently, officials have said the system’s inability to communicate with other databases of student information have made it impossible to precisely track whether students are receiving required services. And the city’s public advocate filed a lawsuit this February alleging SESIS has resulted in the loss of $356 million in Medicaid reimbursements.

An education department official said the new positions — five of which have already been filled — and improved software would ease some of those problems, promising more accurate data collection, an “enhanced ability” to collect money from Medicaid, and a better user experience for teachers.

Education officials under Chancellor Carmen Fariña have acknowledged the need to overhaul the system and convened a multi-agency working group last spring to find ways to improve it.

“Fixing SESIS remains a top priority,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement. “We are aggressively working to address the concerns and continue to take significant steps to improve the system.”

Special education advocates said they are encouraged that the city is committing to new staff and software upgrades, but remain concerned about the scope and pace of the changes. Also unclear is whether parents will gain access to the system, a longtime request from parents that city officials have said is a long-term goal.

“We know the DOE is working on fixing it, but we don’t know what that looks like, or who’s doing it, or what happens in the interim,” said Lori Podvesker, a disability policy manager at IncludeNYC and a member of the city’s Panel for Education Policy, which votes on education policy changes and contracts. “I’m encouraged, but I question why this hasn’t been a priority sooner.”

To upgrade the system’s software, the city is in the final stages of contracting with PowerSchool Group LLC, the company that now owns the underlying program. That contract is going through the city’s Department of Information Technology and Communications, not the education department.

That raised concerns for Public Advocate Letitia James, who is currently suing the city over SESIS.

“It is extremely troubling that the DOE is planning to contract with a vendor that is using the initial SESIS software that has left so many children behind and cost taxpayers millions,” James wrote in a statement. “I am even more disturbed that the DOE is trying to once again circumvent the [Panel for Education Policy] entirely to get this contract approved — a practice we have seen in the past.”

The education department’s Holness insisted the contract to upgrade SESIS software “is going through the city’s rigorous public hearing and contracting process,” but did not dispute that the contract is being handled by the city’s information technology department because of their “expertise in overseeing complex technology projects,” and would therefore not be subject to a vote from the education policy panel.

Still, those who have tracked SESIS for years said the city appeared to be headed in the right direction.

“This is an important component of what needs to be done,” said Roger Maldonado, an attorney in a decades-long class action lawsuit against the education department over the timely provision of special education services and assessments.

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.