IT Inside the Country's Largest School System

To say that the New York City public school system is the largest in the country doesn’t do justice to how big it really is. Most Fortune 500 companies have fewer people than its 1.1 million students and 145,000 employees, including 80,000 teachers. There are 1,400 schools squeezed into 1,100 buildings, many of which were built during the Depression. About 300,000 PCs are scattered throughout, but until just a couple of years ago, no one even knew the exact inventory.

“I have heard on more than one occasion that we maintain more data in the New York City Department of Education than any other organization in the United States other than the IRS,” says Irwin Kroot, the department’s chief information officer, who oversees a $165 million annual budget and a staff of more than 500.

One reason the piles of data are so high is that the department keeps records for tens of millions of former students—a digital archive dating back to the 1970s, and paper files for previous years. “You never know when somebody is going to come back and want a transcript,” he says.

School CIO spoke with Kroot recently about measuring accountability, communicating with parents, and how he keeps more than a thousand schools connected to the Internet.

Q. What are the key challenges you face?

A. Keeping up connectivity, security, appropriate access, bandwidth to all of those locations. That’s physical wire running into each building. We’re just in the process now of completing an optical ring with six hubs that correspond to our regional operation centers. It was a major project. We’ve just finished the installation of equipment. We’ve got 40 schools connected on the ring. It gives us redundancy. We’ve created a campus environment for 1,100 buildings. It replaces what we have in place now, where everybody is cabled into a single hub. That’s obviously not a great place to be, [because] it leaves you very vulnerable. It’s a problem both from a security perspective and from a bandwidth perspective. In September, every one of our [45,000] classrooms will have wired or wireless connectivity, most of them wireless. We’ve been putting in wireless hubs for five years.

Q. What systems are being used or put in place to address No Child Left Behind requirements and improve student performance?

A. It all starts from the baseline of student data. We have lots of legacy systems, some of which are 20 years old, that capture data on our students. We have a major accountability initiative to establish some very specific performance metrics for schools based on academic achievement and to look with a broader perspective than NCLB allows. What we’re looking to do is be able to measure academic achievement in schools in a more fine-grained way. Ultimately we’re going to give each school a grade that would accompany the NCLB classification for schools. So what we’re working on right now is developing tools; we’re looking at other school systems that have done similar work to allow us to create dashboards, to allow us to consolidate the data from existing applications and some data that we don’t even capture yet but that we want to capture. So we can have a Web-based principal’s dashboard, a teacher’s dashboard that allows you to look at the performance of your school and your class and drill down into the details. That’s really our key initiative right now from a lot of perspectives, including the technology perspective.

Q. What is the data you need that you don’t have?

A. In particular, one of the key components for this assessment of a school’s overall performance is satisfaction surveys for parents, students, and teachers. Where it exists right now it’s only sporadic; there’s no central way to aggregate that information. One of the key initiatives over the coming year is to figure out how those surveys are administered and how we capture the data and what sort of data transformations we’re going to be doing with the data in order to come up with this overall assessment of the school’s performance. As the specifications are developed, the full roll-out is supposed to be in September 2007. We’re getting ready to build whatever they need us to build.

Q. You consider this to be a level above NCLB?

A. Oh, absolutely. Far more informative than just what NCLB requires. There’s not any good way, given how NCLB reporting is done, to say, “if you take that group of kids in first grade and look at that same group of kids in the fifth grade, how did those kids do as a group?” What NCLB does is take a group of kids in the fifth grade with a set of characteristics—[for example], ethnicity, gender—but it may not be the same kids, particularly in a city like New York where we have incredible mobility.

So part of what we’re doing is giving ourselves the ability to look at that kind of granularity and say OK, let’s pick out kids and be able to follow them longitudinally, because that really gives you a lot of useful information about how you’re doing. If it’s just kids dropping in and dropping out, there’re so many extremes you have trouble deciphering what’s wrong about what you’re doing. [It’s] being able to consider the impact factors that aren’t even considered in NCLB.

Q. Like what?

A. Like whether or not the students are in or out of the U.S., or whether students are in or out of the school system. Another key component for us is being able to take information we’re gathering not just on the basis of a single standardized test each year—which is what NCLB is based on—but rather on a series of diagnostic measures, so that you look not only at how a kid or a group of kids are doing, but also at what the sub-areas are in English language arts or in mathematics so that you can tailor the appropriate interventions for the kids to help [them] get up to the appropriate level. When you just do once-a-year testing, it doesn’t really give you the richness of data that we want to provide to teachers.

If you’re doing multiple tests throughout the year, particularly if you’re getting the results back quickly—and that’s another part of what we’re working with and using technology for—then the teacher can look, work with the coaches and the principals at the school, and figure out, OK what are the targeted interventions for this kid, this group of kids?

Q. How are you engaging with parents?

A. Right now there’s a mixed bag of tools. We developed a couple of mechanisms to communicate with parents. There’s just basic information on the Department of Education Web site, where [parents] can look at information that’s specific to [their kids’] schools. We’re just finishing the rollout of a school portal for each school using Microsoft’s Content Management System, which allows us to set up frameworks that are very much like what you see when you go to the My Yahoo page.

A lot of our schools—but not all—are using auto dialers, so when a kid doesn’t show up for school you can download the attendance data from the student information system into the auto dialer and it will automatically call the kid’s home—or whatever telephone number you provide—and say, “your kid wasn’t in school today.” Unfortunately, a lot of kids have figured out how to be home and intercept the phone call, so the parents never get the call.

We piloted a parent portal a few years ago to provide specific information about kids’ attendance, grades, and other student-specific information and made that available both on the department’s Web site and using Microsoft Speech Server through an IVR application. For people who don’t have access to computers, they could dial in a number and be prompted verbally through a series of commands.

Q. You designed this yourself?

A. This is homegrown, using the Microsoft speech server platform. We do most of our development in .Net. [We have] 140,000-150,000 kids getting special education services; many of those are getting related services—speech therapy, physical therapy—many of which are provided by outside providers. It doesn’t happen in a school building, but we have to keep track of which kids actually started getting those services and what their attendance has been because that’s how we get reimbursement from Medicaid and other federal and state sources. They’re enormously expensive. We built an application using the speech server platform for all our providers. They were required to use it. They had to call in and punch in on the phone when they had seen a kid for services the first time. Previously we had done that on paper. It would take weeks to get the information in and it had to be keyed in and wasn’t always keyed in correctly. This is a huge improvement for us. It saved us several months at getting an accurate record this year.

We’ve got other stuff going on…pretty nifty handheld initiatives. One we’re pretty proud of is an application that our division of fitness and physical education worked on with our technology group. An organization called Human Kinetics created an application called Fitness Gram. It was a way to measure kids’ physical activity in gym class. There was a mainframe application that the organization had built with a pretty complex algorithm by the Cooper Institute to measure height and weight and other stuff. We’re licensed to the algorithm and we actually built a Web-based application that can also be used on a handheld so that the physical education teacher downloads the information on his or her class. We process on our servers a report that starting next year will go to parents twice a year that says this is how your kid measured up. It’s a really impressive application. Human Kinetics and Cooper Institute were really enthusiastic about this and they’re going to be marketing it. We’ll share the royalties.

Q. Do you have regular professional development workshops for teachers?

A. It’s extremely variable across the system because it’s not something that’s funded as a centrally provided program. Given our size, there’s a little bit of everything going on. Some folks have the luxury of getting huge amounts [of instruction] targeted toward technology, others don’t get anywhere near enough. It’s just a big range.

Q. What do you like to do outside of your job?

A. The thing that gives me the most satisfaction is singing in a chorus. It’s a small, classically oriented chorus of gay men. It’s called the Gay Gotham Chorus. We’ve done a couple performances at Carnegie Hall this year already.

Christopher Heun is a New York–based freelancer who also writes for InformationWeek and InternetWeek.