District’s rollout of a student information system has become a technological disaster—and serves as a lesson for others

systemWith a few taps on a computer keyboard, a student’s entire school history from kindergarten to high school graduation was supposed to show up on the screen. That perfect score on a third-grade spelling test, that trip to the principal’s office for talking too much in class, that day of ditching math as a senior.

The computer software was supposed to help school officials schedule the classes a student needed to earn a diploma or attend college and to allow parents to track their children’s grades and attendance.

Instead, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s student information system, which has cost more than $130 million, has become a technological disaster. The system made its debut this semester and promptly overloaded the district’s database servers, requiring an emergency re-engineering. In the days and weeks that followed, many teachers were unable to enter grades or attendance or even figure out which students were enrolled in class.

Because of scheduling blunders partly stemming from the new system, students at Jefferson High School sat in the auditorium for weeks waiting to be assigned classes. A judge became so alarmed he ordered state education officials to intervene.

But a quick fix to the problems plaguing the system is unlikely. More than 600 fixes or enhancements are needed in the software, and there are “data quality and integrity issues” that include grades, assignments, and even students disappearing from the system, Supt. John Deasy acknowledged last week in a letter. It could take a year to work out kinks in the system just to enter grades, he said.

The district agreed to implement the student information system as a result of a federal class-action lawsuit two decades ago. The suit alleged that LAUSD violated special education students’ rights, in part, by keeping such disorganized records that it sometimes lost track of those students’ needs.

As part of a consent decree still overseen by a court-appointed monitor, the district promised to create a computer database that would track comprehensive information on every student in the district.

“The whole system needs to work,” said Robert M. Myers, an attorney for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs. “Having an integrated system allows someone to see the big picture.”

Among the immediate concerns with the system is that seniors are not being scheduled for the classes they need to prepare for college and might not obtain accurate transcripts in time to apply.

On Oct. 20, the court-appointed monitor is expected to release a report assessing the district’s progress in implementing the system.

The project has had a long and tortured history.

(Next page: What went wrong—and what other districts can learn from these mistakes)