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Teacher to Parent - Education software turns from aid to obstacle

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Stallings

Q: My child’s school uses a program called Powerschool to track student’s grades and attendance. Apparently a number of states use it. I like that it gives me updates on my daughter’s grades, but I’ve heard that it can cause teachers problems and is unreliable. Is this something I should be concerned about?

Powerschool (PS) is the largest provider of K-12 education technology software, reaching 75% of all students in North America. Basically it’s a computer program that processes and stores every piece of school data you can imagine, including attendance and grades.

It can be a valuable aid in providing parents and teachers access to school records. However, it is not without problems.

A big one is that it has at times become a dog-wagging tail, prevailing over the education it is meant to support.

For example, a successful innovation at some schools is the “schedule flip.” This is where, halfway through the school year, morning classes become afternoon classes and vice-versa. It’s helpful because students generally learn better in the mornings. If a student has a critical course like math after lunch all year, he or she is at a disadvantage to students who have the course in the morning. The “flip” equalizes schedules to give all kids the best opportunity to learn.

Unfortunately PS can’t readily handle the “flip,” turning the program from an aid into an obstacle. Since the technology precludes it, the “flip” may be dead.

That sort of thing is what Thoreau meant when he said we have become “tools of our tools.” It’s not surprising when you realize that the tools are paid better: the estimated cost for implementing PS statewide is about $7 million (or approximately 100 teachers).

A second issue with PS is that it does not always produce accurate grades. Now, in fairness to PS, it’s not like grades were always accurate when teachers averaged them by hand, so I’m not pretending things aren’t at least improved. Nevertheless, they’re still not perfect for a number of reasons.

One is that PS has no immediate “undo” function. If a teacher accidentally deletes a student’s grade on a past test, the original grade is likely gone forever without moving heaven and earth to restore it. To avoid conflict, teachers may be obliged to give the student a higher grade than she earned. This is in part why some teachers still use old-fashioned grade books in addition to PS, which is not exactly a vote of confidence.

Thankfully the grading errors in PS are usually quite small, but when you consider that the difference between a Valedictorian and a Salutatorian is often a fraction of a point (as is the difference between getting a state scholarship and not), every fraction matters.

There are other ways the program can become unreliable, including old-fashioned hacking. In 2016, a North Carolina teen was arrested for changing the grades and class ranks of six students. He improved his own class rank from 67th to seventh, which is a little like cooking the company’s books and giving yourself a million dollar raise: it’s not exactly discreet.

In 2018, students in the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., school system took advantage of “vulnerabilities” in the PS system to change grades, attendance data, and school lunch balances. A similar hacking occurred at a Muskegon Township, Mich., high school just last year. These are not the only incidents, and there’s no telling how many more remain undiscovered.

The most common reason for inaccuracies may be PS’s byzantine complexity. Setting up a teacher’s online gradebook to calculate averages might be compared to driving a car by first assembling its engine.

In response, the people at PS assert, correctly, that they offer a myriad of helpful instructions and articles to assist teachers. Okay, but there’s also a book somewhere explaining how to assemble a car engine. It would be a lot more helpful if the engine was already installed, and the driver only had to select the right key to start it. Any number of free online gradebooks offer this kind of teacher-friendly configuration.

The PS gradebook set-up process is so intricate that few teachers can manage it on their own without supervisory assistance. One wrong click can lead to a cascade of grading errors.

Just last year, over 100 North Carolina school districts issued incorrect grades to elementary students. An investigation determined that the errors were caused by teachers incorrectly configuring their PS gradebooks.

To avoid such issues, many schools used to have designated Powerschool “experts” on staff who would routinely find mistakes in the way teachers had set up their gradebooks. Eventually those “experts” went away. Now no one finds errors anymore. Is that because teachers suddenly got magnificently meticulous once the quality-control checkers vanished?

Um, I’ll let you do the math.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent and on Twitter @stallings_jody.

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