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Principals are optimistic about ARIS, but kinks continue

Nearly two thirds of principals say the Department of Education’s $81 million online data warehouse could help improve teaching and learning at their schools.

The finding is among the results of a survey conducted by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s office, which released a statement today emphasizing that more than a third of principals did not think the system was helping their schools. In its coverage of Gotbaum’s report, the New York Times billed the system as being “supported by most principals,” And the city has said that its internal survey results show that most principals see benefits to the system.

ARIS’s solid approval rating doesn’t mean all of its kinks have been worked out. The Manhattan School for Children’s parent coordinator sent the following e-mail to parents last week:

ARIS and Classroom Assignments
It has come to my attention that the classroom teacher assignments have been posted on ARIS and I have been trying to unravel the mystery as to how these assignments came to be posted. I have also discovered that there are many mistakes. The official letters from MSC will be sent at the end of August. I am also out of town and cannot access the ID numbers that many parents are now requesting. Please double check the letters that you received from your classroom teacher. Both numbers were given out at the same time. Again, you will be notified about your official class by mail. Please do not rely on the ARIS site for this information.

The parent who forwarded me the e-mail said the incorrect information has been removed from the system but new information hasn’t yet been uploaded. (The system opened to parents in May.)

Here’s Gotbaum’s press release:

NYC School Principals Divided Over ARIS System, Gotbaum Survey Says
Public Advocate’s Report Finds Concern About Costs in Key Component of Mayor’s Accountability Initiative

MANHATTAN – A majority of New York City Public School principals surveyed by the Office of the Public Advocate support an $81 million computer system designed to boost achievement and accountability in classrooms, according to a report released today by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. However, over two-thirds of respondents believe that the Department of Education (DOE) spent too much money on the system, and many principals expressed concern about its acceptance among teachers.

ARIS, or the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, was launched in the spring of 2008 as part of the DOE’s Accountability Initiative. But in the survey conducted by the Public Advocate’s office, many principals indicate that ARIS interferes with their jobs, is not a good use of their time or their staff’s time, and will not improve teaching and learning in school. According to the joint statement of work issued by the DOE and IBM, which received the contract to develop ARIS, “broad acceptance” of the system “is essential to support the sweeping change that the DOE envisions.”

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum said, “This survey tells me that principals see ARIS as a useful tool but are very concerned about the money the DOE – and schools themselves – are spending on it, money that could be going directly to the classroom. The DOE has a long way to go before it gains the support and acceptance required for this very expensive system to work. At the least, it should solicit feedback from principals to make sure that ARIS suits their needs. And, given that principals are most concerned about the system’s costs, we ought to have a full, public review of all new expenditures associated with ARIS. I’m pleased that the school governance bill, recently passed by the State Legislature, will require the PEP to approve future contracts as costly as ARIS.”

According to a review conducted by the Independent Budget Office (IBO) at the request of Public Advocate Gotbaum, the ARIS will cost the DOE $81 million from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2009. The Public Advocate’s Office survey, conducted between November 30 and December 31, 2008, was released as part of a report: “ARIS on the Side of Caution: A Survey of New York City Principals on the City’s Accountability Computer System.” Findings of the report include:

  • The majority of principals believe that the DOE overpaid for the ARIS System.
  • More than a third of principals believe that ARIS interferes with their ability to be instructional leaders at their schools.
  • The majority of principals believe that their staff has not been trained to use ARIS.
  • More than a third of principals do not believe that ARIS will improve teaching and learning at their schools.
  • More than a quarter of principals do not believe that ARIS is a good use of their time or their staff’s time.
  • More than a third of respondents state that they have spent money from their budgets on ARIS.
  • Nearly half of principals surveyed believe that ARIS provides them with information that was already available before the implementation of ARIS.

The Office of the Public Advocate makes the following recommendations to ensure broader acceptance of major initiatives like ARIS in the future, improve the implementation of ARIS, and cut costs:

  • The PEP should review and approve all new costs associated with ARIS.
  • The DOE should provide a Mission Statement and Statement of Goals for all major contracts prior to PEP approval and an Annual Performance Review for each year of the contract.
  • The DOE should ensure that all schools receive ARIS training paid for by the DOE
  • The DOE should review all accountability systems used in New York City public schools, so it can incorporate successful elements of alternative systems into ARIS and evaluate the cost effectiveness of ARIS.

ARIS is not the first large-scale computer system to be introduced into a public school system-several precedents for ARIS have experienced significant delays, cost overruns, and the termination of contracts. Public Advocate Gotbaum’s report details the problems with some of these systems and suggests that the city can avoid the problems that have plagued other government-contracted computer data systems by following the recommendations above.

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