New York City has signed an $80 million deal for a massive supercomputer that will crunch huge amounts of data and offer up-to-the-minute reports to teachers, principals, and eventually parents, in an effort to better understand student performance. The information fed into the IBM-designed system, called ARIS (or Achievement Reporting and Innovation System), could include existing data on students–such as gender, race, and any disabilities–along with new data from incremental testing. The five-year deal with IBM is already under way, and ARIS is expected to be running for principals and teachers by September and for parents the following year.

IBM will provide software, hardware, consulting, and technology services for the system, which will enable teachers, administrators, and parents to view and analyze achievement data from state standardized exams, as well as from periodic assessments administered at each school. The information reportedly will help teachers identify effective practices citywide and improve and individualize instruction based on each student’s unique needs during the course of the school year.

“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,” said Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, former U.S. assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration who prosecuted the Justice Department’s famous antitrust case against Microsoft Corp.

“Armed with this information, our educators will be able to tailor instruction to their students’ needs, and parents will be able to get involved in their children’s education like never before,” Klein said.

IBM technologies for the project reportedly will include WebSphere Data Stage and Quality Stage, business intelligence programs that consolidate information from various sources and make it available for analysis, and IBM’s OmniFind enterprise search software. The system also will include the recently introduced Lotus Connections suite of social-networking tools for creating wikis and blogs that teachers can use to communicate.

How will this work in practice? Michael Littlejohn, vice president of public-sector business for IBM’s global services division, outlined this scenario for an Information Week reporter: Suppose a teacher wants to help a student struggling with geometry. The teacher could tap into the system and search for best practices on geometry instruction, while also getting the contact information for teachers identified as having strong skills in that area.

In a city facing many challenges in its schools, initial reaction to the deal was mixed. Some aren’t so pleased with the system’s price tag.

“You can lower a lot of class sizes with that money or buy a lot of supplies,” teachers union President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

But Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the New York Daily News he believes the system will be well worth its cost. “Every child in this city deserves a [high-]quality education, and we will spare no expense,” he said.

Jim Liebman, chief accountability officer for the New York City Department of Education, also lauded the system: “ARIS will bring together every bit of learning information that we have on every one of our 1.1 million students. Now, school professionals will be able to slice and dice [those] data to see what’s wrong.”