Rushed Software Rollout in Howard County, Md., Schools Causes Confusion, Stress

Several teachers have noted inconsistencies in the way the new systems calculates and displays grades.

by Lisa Philip, Columbia Flier, Md. / October 2, 2015 0
Baltimore County residents will be able to watch council meeting live from any location. flickr/Steve McFarland

(TNS) -- Several Howard County teachers have criticized the county school system's implementation of two new software systems this fall, saying it happened too quickly to allow for thorough staff training and for working out kinks in the programs.

On Thursday, four staff members at Folly Quarter Middle School resigned as HCPSS-designated points of contact for questions about the new software, according to an email the former POCs sent to the school's staff, citing a lack of support from school system leadership in resolving integration issues between the two new systems.

"When these tools are rolled out, we expect them to be error-free," said Bernadette Bechta, a computer science and business teacher at Mt. Hebron High School. "Canvas and Synergy are riddled with implementation defects. Educators, students and families are the end users of Canvas and are debugging it as deadlines loom."

Canvas, a learning management software, is used by county middle and high school teachers to post grades and assignments online; elementary school teachers use Synergy, a student information system, to do the same. Synergy also stores emergency contact information and communicates academic performance to students and parents.

Teachers previously thought they had until Monday, Oct. 5 to post grades for interim progress reports into the systems, but in the past week they have been told by administrators that they have until Friday afternoon, according to Howard County Educators Association President Paul Lemle. This is because of a 24-hour delay in syncing information from Canvas to Synergy, he said.

Several teachers said they are concerned about meeting this deadline and about doing so accurately, because of inconsistencies in the way that Canvas calculates and displays grades.

"It is very challenging to teach all day, plan and then to know that when you're taking time to input grades, they might not show up accurately or at all," said Anna Gannon, a social studies teacher at Bonnie Branch Middle School. "Looking at interim grades — one thing we've been asked to do is to go back and verify that each grade has been calculated accurately. To me that's double grading. Why don't I just use paper grading and calculate a percentage grade?"

In an email that Lemle sent to Howard County Administrators Association leadership with a list of staff concerns about the new systems, he wrote, "Reports aren't yet available to know which students are/are not failing courses" and, "Interims are likely to be inaccurate due to syncing issues and lost data."

"This is an initiative where we're asking all teachers in K-12 to come up with a very 21st-century method of communicating with parents and interacting with students," said Ed Cosentino, HCAA president and the principal of Clemens Crossing Elementary School. "With anything this big, there will be rocks in the road. But central office has assured me that they have teams working 18-hour days making sure they get it right."

"We hear the concerns of teachers and parents and we certainly don't wish to dispute or minimize them," said HCPSS Communications Specialist Brian Bassett. "Rather, we are doing everything in our power to identify and correct existing issues and address each person's question in a thorough and accurate manner."

Designated staff members at each school serve as points of contact for questions about the new systems, and teachers also have access to Canvas support services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But many teachers have criticized the way in which the new software was implemented, not the level of support that they have received from the school system nor even the software itself.

"I think that the program itself has the capability of being a very good thing from the perspective of centralizing how we do grades and other information, the way of collecting information from parents and streamlining the way students, parents and teachers can use the systems," Gannon said.

"But I have quite a few concerns, and also have been hearing several concerns from my colleagues about the rollout process," she said. "If we're thinking about adopting something, we pilot it, and work out kinks before it goes lives to the entire 70,000 students. And that didn't happen this time."

Bassett said that HCPSS piloted Canvas at Elkridge Landing Middle School in May and June, but that the pilot program was not used to record and post grades.

"Educators understand the power of the product but have had limited opportunities to explore and debug the product in a 'live' setting," said Bechta. "As educators, we are learning how to use Canvas and Synergy as deadlines are being imposed for implementation. Limited opportunities were available this summer to explore Canvas, yet it was rolled out as school began."

Those staff serving as points of contact began receiving training in Canvas in the spring, but the majority of HCPSS staff did not receive training until August, a couple of weeks before school began.

Students gained access to the system during the second week of school in early September, and Bassett said that parents will probably gain access later this fall.

"It seems like a lot of extra work could've been avoided with professional development for staff, with opportunities before school started to say, this is what we're going to show on the student side and on the parent side," Gannon said.

Some school staff have dismissed criticism of the software rollout, saying that frustrations are par for the course when learning how to use new software systems.

"I can definitely understand how some folks feel," said Nick Novak, principal of Howard High School. "But anytime you switch programs there is that learning curve of, this is how I used to do this, and how do I do this now?"

"Right now, our biggest concern is teaching teachers and staff how to use the program," said Cosentino. "The challenge is you have digital immigrants who have done things a certain way for a long time, and then there are people for whom this is natural. There is a wide variety of people and we have to make sure we support that."

In the meantime, teachers are rushing to enter and verify grades in Canvas and Synergy before the interim progress report deadline. Some principals are giving teachers time to work on this on Oct. 2, a professional development day.

"It's a lot of dancing around, kind of cleaning it up," said Gannon. "We're trying to do what we can, and we're doing the best that we can. But it has increased our stress levels tremendously."

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