Why can’t New York City schools design a decent app?

Our old digital gradebook system was awful. Now, I miss it it terribly.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Years ago, while chatting with a fellow teacher, I mentioned that my high school was adopting an online learning management system, or LMS, called PupilPath. His expression quickly changed. “You’re going to hate it,” he warned me. He was right. It was awful.

These days, however, I miss it terribly.

Learning management systems — digital databases of student information and electronic grade books, all in one — are great innovations, but their execution often falls short. With rosters of about 170 students, teachers can become swamped with administrative work, so procedures need to be quick and efficient. Anything requiring extra eye or brain work, whether it be an incomplete heading or a tedious procedure, can turn routine work into a quagmire.

Photo of a man with dark hair. He is wearing a blue button-down shirt and stands against a brick backdrop.
Mike Dowd (Courtesy of Mike Dowd)

PupilPath was not nearly as efficient as some other learning management systems I’ve used or seen, yet it had useful features. The system allowed teachers to post and grade assignments, look up guidance counselor and parent contact information, check students’ attendance and grades in other classes, and create and view “anecdotals” — staff reports about issues of concern involving students. The phone app even had a seating chart (an online Delaney Book, for you old-timers), making it quick and easy to take attendance, which was then viewable to parents.

Still, PupilPath was flawed enough that when the company was hacked and the city’s education department banned it, I was elated. But when the city announced that, because so many schools had relied on PupilPath, it would develop its own replacement that would be made available at no cost to schools, well, you probably see where this is going.

For starters, the city’s Grading, Attendance, and Messaging Application, or GAMA, which I started using late last school year, isn’t a single app. In fact, I now find myself using six different apps and websites to do the same job as before, and yet I am still without some of PupilPath’s most useful functions.

For schools that haven’t purchased a new LMS to replace PupilPath, grading has become a nightmare. Because the new grading app won’t allow attachments, I find myself keeping two separate grade books, one in Google Classroom and the other on DOE Grades. But no matter how carefully a teacher tries to transfer the grades from one site to the other, student averages never seem to match up. The discrepancies confuse students and parents and create a lot of extra work for teachers.

Meanwhile, finding basic student information requires teachers to slog through the various sites, many with their own complex navigation. Each site has bits of essential information, but one would need a graphic organizer to remember what exists where. Even obtaining simple facts about students — schedules, grades, or contact information — can be time-consuming and, frankly, infuriating.

Identifying a student’s guidance counselor while viewing their grades, for example, requires logging into a new website that requires an additional texted password, then choosing among 18 vaguely worded information portals and eventually downloading and scrutinizing a PDF of the student’s class schedule.

Even obtaining simple facts about students — schedules, grades, or contact information — can be time-consuming and, frankly, infuriating.

Since teachers take attendance while teaching, the process needs to be quick and simple, but, like just about everything else with GAMA, it’s not. That’s because after class attendance is submitted, it is forever lost to teachers. This absurd setup necessitates taking attendance once on paper and then once or twice electronically each period. Why twice electronically? During my school’s two “daily attendance” periods, teachers fill out the same electronic attendance sheets twice — once to show that students were in class, another to show that these same students were in school. I’ll leave it to readers to ponder this logic.

It’s hard to convey the difficulty of using this app. The phone version defaults to organizing students alphabetically by first name, but then puts last names before first ones, making them harder to scan. Bizarrely, those with two-part first names (common among Chinese-American students) are organized using the second name, placing them completely out of order.

The computer version of the app does contain a seating chart, but — I’m not making this up — it is positioned upside down, making it useless to me. Meanwhile, both versions of the app show so few student names at once that it’s inconvenient to scroll through rosters while teaching.

This system has many more design flaws, but I don’t have the space to explain them all. Furthermore, the apps often load slowly or simply don’t function. The result is constant irritation and mental fatigue among teachers, with our lunch-period discussions becoming less about teaching strategies and more about information-management woes. GAMA woes have even become a topic of conversation among my fellow wrestling coaches and me at weekend tournaments.

At a citywide teachers union meeting last fall, I aired some of the gripes I’ve articulated here. I was then advised by a teacher who was part of the team that created GAMA that if enough teachers emailed the education department, we could likely convince them to address some of the system’s flaws. (Education department officials told Chalkbeat that the city has made multiple updates to GAMA based on feedback from schools, including numerous changes to its grading and attendance applications as recently as February.)

A response to a broken product should not depend on the number of complaints made about it. Teachers, students, and families deserve an LMS that works well for everyone. With a little common sense, some focus from Mayor Adams’ “efficiency czar,” and a review of the well-designed learning management systems that some city schools have invested in, these problems should be simple to fix. For now, though, GAMA remains as dysfunctional as ever.

Mike Dowd is a social studies teacher and wrestling coach at Midwood High School in Brooklyn. He founded the school’s cycling club, and he has been active in transportation advocacy for many years. He and his wife have two children, both of whom attended New York City Public Schools.