A report from the Clayton Christensen Institute highlights disparities between the software available on the market and what technologically advanced schools need for their small and medium student populations.
For the Schools and Software report, co-authors Julia Freeland from the institute and Alex Hernandez from the Charter School Growth Fund surveyed leaders in 30 school systems that serve between 2,500 and 25,000 students. These leaders work in districts that emphasize technology integration, and they shared their frustrations with the current software situation.
Smaller school systems face unique challenges because of their size. About half of the nation's 48 billion students attend approximately 3,700 small or medium school districts, according to a 2012 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. But the large school districts are the ones that have the purchasing power and attention of software vendors.
A smaller school district might want $500,000 worth of software customization to make a system work for it or to design a custom system from scratch. While some charter management organizations and vendors have worked together on these types of projects, it is a risky investment for vendors because they're betting that other school districts will eventually adopt the software.
The co-authors suggest that school districts have an opportunity to band together so they can increase their purchasing power and influence. That's proved difficult, however, because schools are at different stages of technology integration and don't often share information about what software has worked well for students under different circumstances. Freeland views this sharing between schools as low-hanging fruit that districts can pick on their way to improving the software situation.
"The tech scene is a bit like the Wild West right now," said survey respondent Jeff Baier, superintendent of the Los Altos School District in California. "All of the companies are solving for X but developers are not always clear what X is or what it should be."
To top it off, most of the software is for learning, not for back-office administrative purposes. Smaller school districts often fall between the cracks on administrative technology because they can't afford large software systems, and the most basic systems don't do enough for them.
On the academic side, schools are trying to integrate a variety of software tools into their learning system and having a hard time doing so. Vendors tend to focus on proprietary tools without looking at the big picture. And in this case, school districts see the big picture as a suite of tools that work together to help students learn. One way this problem can be addressed is by having application programming interfaces available for each software component that others can use to integrate their systems, the report's authors recommend.
Along with integration, data access and integrity have proved to be another difficult challenge to these districts. In the survey, a California superintendent said he wouldn't have talked so much about data-driven instruction if he had known that it would be so hard to actually access student information.
"It's nearly impossible to get the data out of our software platforms," said Superintendent Cary Matsuoka of the Milpitas Unified School District in California.
With all the rhetoric around data-driven instruction, schools should be able to easily access the student performance information that their software tools collect. But that's not always the case, as the report shows. Districts have a hard time prying the data out of the software, and when they can access it, they don't always trust it.
One of the major reasons that schools are adopting technology is to help teachers differentiate instruction and meet students where they're at. But that's difficult to do if teachers don't have access to student performance data.
Without accurate, trustworthy data, schools are just replacing paper-based systems with their digital cousins and not receiving many benefits out of it, Freeland said. And that's a problem that software vendors need to work on and that school districts can address in their contracts.
"If schools can't get good data, we're basically digitizing the old system and not giving teachers any additional better information to work with."