New York

High hopes for new ARIS data warehouse after stumbles

Elissa Gootman’s story in the Times today on the non-functionality of the $80 million ARIS data warehouse system is important because it lays bare what teachers have known for months: ARIS was supposed to give parents and teachers radically more access to student achievement data, but in practice it suffered from frequent malfunctions and currently is providing zero information.

I’ve been talking to people familiar with the new version of ARIS, slated to be released in November. They tell me this new software is a huge improvement over the ARIS released last year. Even with new software about two weeks away from debut, there remain two major unanswered questions about the Department of Education’s effort to build a massive data warehouse.

The first question is whether the contractor, IBM, made mistakes that could have been avoided — and whether some portion of the taxpayer dollars slated to go to IBM, which total $80 million, should be paid back. The second question is whether a program like ARIS is necessary at all.

On the question of IBM’s role, the Department of Education’s position is that the difficulties ARIS faced in its first edition last year were unavoidable and to be expected of any new data system. “There’s always going to be some kind of issues,” Andrew Jacob, a DOE spokesman, just told me over the phone.

Indeed, software systems are notoriously and frustratingly bug-ridden and slow to launch. I can say that with authority now, working amongst techies here at The Open Planning Project.

But school officials early on promised more than ARIS delivered. At a long press conference last year in the basement of Tweed Courthouse, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein talked about the software as transformational and said that eventually not just teachers but also parents would have access to the system. So far, parents have no access at all*, and the software has been so disappointing that all of the schools I’ve spoken to about it have given up on ARIS. (The DOE insists some principals and educators did use the software last year.)

The glitches appeared soon after the software’s release. GothamSchools’ own Kelly Vaughan tells me ARIS crashed even during a presentation introducing it at her school, Mott Hall III, last year. Those who could log onto the program said that, even when accessible, ARIS was disappointing.

John Galvin, the assistant principal at IS 318 in Williamsburg, said he was excited by the idea of a warehouse to aggregate information from the DOE’s many databases. He also liked the idea of software to help him zero in on the precise areas where students needed to improve. But Galvin said ARIS quickly disappointed him. “You really at some point were supposed to be able to access individual kids’ scores, compare classes to one another,” he said. “You could never do any of that stuff. You could look at an individual kid’s scores, but you couldn’t manipulate the data in any kind of sophisticated way.”

The second question the Times story raises is whether ARIS should exist at all. There is already a fairly well-organized campaign arguing that it should not, especially amid a budget crunch that could become a budget crisis. A group led by the Center for Immigrant Families and Time Out From Testing has written a letter asking the city to axe the ARIS contract, and their push is gaining steam: last week, the United Federation of Teachers signed on. This group challenges not only the IBM contract, but the notion that the city’s schools need capacity to track data beyond what the state already provides.

Alongside this campaign is a substantial underground of educators who have responded to ARIS’s malfunctions by creating homemade versions of the same kind of software. This do-it-yourself software is usually made by a single tech-savvy teacher who has a good handle on Microsoft Excel or Google’s online spreadsheet tool. The teacher will compile the schools’ data, make up some process for other teachers to input their students’ scores, and then write their own formulas to aid analysis.

Galvin said he uses a spreadsheet he built with Microsoft Access to examine students’ test scores. He said the software helped his data inquiry team last year move 25 of 26 students they zeroed in on as under-performing in math move up a proficiency level on the state test. The Times article talks about a program called DataCation that one city school built and 20 others have purchased for about $13,000.

I tried to reach the Department of Education’s chief accountability officer, Jim Liebman, for comment this morning, but a spokesman, Andrew Jacob, said he was not available.

Jacob said that ARIS’s launch was hobbled by two main challenges: privacy concerns and the difficulty of gathering together the information from about five data systems that were built in the 1970s. He said IBM had only eight months to develop the “core” of ARIS, and he insisted that many principals and data inquiry teams used the software last year.

Responding to Galvin’s concern about the capabilities ARIS offers, Jacob said the new software coming next month will be more sophisticated and will respond to concerns raised by principals last year.

*CLARIFICATION: Delaying ARIS’s release to parents until this school year was always the Department of Education’s plan, Jacob said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”