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Phase-out of ARIS follows years of educator frustrations

Geoff Decker

The imminent phase-out of ARIS, the student data management system, elicited cheers from educators and parents who found the system never quite delivered on its promise.

The Department of Education said Sunday that it will scrap the $95 million system meant to improve student achievement and replace it with an internally designed system. When that debuts, it will mark the end of a period of educators and parents wrestling with, and ignoring, ARIS — an experience those stakeholders said hoped the city would consider as it develops new ways to store and share student data.

“It was kind of anathema for teachers to go to the database,” said Jeffrey Slivko, principal at M.S. 172 in Queens. “If I were to design a system … I would collaborate on a system that teachers find useful.”

ARIS, which was built by IBM and later managed by Amplify, a firm headed by former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, debuted in 2008. Nearly two-thirds of principals said then that the new system, which consolidated student test scores, grades, attendance, and contact data, would help their schools.

“ARIS will give the teachers, the principals, and the parents of New York City the critical tools they need to really understand what students know — and don’t know,” Klein said then.

Over the next few years, administrators, teachers, and parents said, it became clear that the system helped monitor student test scores but couldn’t offer more detailed information on students like up-to-date grades and homework assignments that many parents craved (and that newer student data programs provide). City officials noted this week that only 3 percent of parents and 16 percent of teachers had accessed the system during the 2012-13 school year.

“Parents want to know how their children are doing between and beyond the report card,” said Olga Garcia-Kaplan, a parent of two public school students, and a blogger.

ARIS’s hefty price tag, and its status as a symbol of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s data-focused school improvement strategies, also made it an easy target for critics.

“We have consistently criticized the DOE’s expenditures on ARIS, which had many problems in its implementation, ran into cost overruns and ultimately was not used by many DOE personnel and parents,” said Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the principals union. “It’s a shame, obviously, to throw out millions of dollars so there’s no pleasure in saying, ‘We told you so.’”

“It was a lot of money I could have used in classrooms that went to IBM,” said Brian De Vale, principal at P.S. 257 in Brooklyn. “There was nothing in there I needed.”

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Amplify, said the company had long been preparing for the phase-out of the system when its maintenance contracts expired this year. They had expected the city to adopt a new state data system, he said, though a spokeswoman for the city’s education department said the ARIS replacement would be developed by the city.

Frustrations with ARIS prompted a few educators to build their own data systems.

Jesse Olsen, former public school teacher in the Bronx, built a system called Impact in 2009 that gave parents online access to how well students performed on individual assignments, which assignments were not turned in, and also tracked incremental progress in certain skills. He would later license software to New York City Schools, which prompted an ethics investigation and ultimately a fine of $4,000 levied by the city’s Conflict of Interest Board. He has since founded Jump Rope, a company that develops education software.

At the time he was developing Impact, Olsen said the issue with ARIS arose from its one-size fits all approach of creating a system that worked for every school, every parent, and every administrator. Ultimately, Olsen said, software must be designed to assist teachers.

“Are we talking about what is useful to the teachers or the DOE?” he said.

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