New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.
The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.
Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.
The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.
“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”
Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.
Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.
“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”
It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.
Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.
“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.
Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.
The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.
Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.
Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.
“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”
Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.
“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.