Frankenstein: Idaho’s $42 Million Inept Data Monster

640px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Idaho could benefit from examining the successful models of several States and hiring a professional grant writer and some technical experts who could better inform the development of a better-conceived application to fund the work that the State so desperately needs.

Such was the scathing critique by the US Department of Education when it rejected Idaho’s $21 million dollar grant request to develop Idaho’s big data longitudinal data collection system (Idaho System of Educational Excellence, or ISEE and its companion Schoolnet).

While such blunt criticism should have been a clue that the state had a lot of planning work to complete before tapping taxpayers to pay for a student and teacher data-mining exercise (the advice to hire a “professional grant writer” is particularly hilarious), the state unsurprisingly ignored USDE’s advice and instead turned to its favorite private piggy-bank for entrenched interests, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, to foot the bill.

A little background information here.  In 2008 Superintendent Luna  notified our legislators that Idaho was the only remaining state in the union that lacked a central and uniform student data system.  As such, he asked for the authority to build such a system in a three-year plan.  At the time each district in the state used a hodgepodge of independent systems to track data.

In May 2009, the federal government offered Idaho a $5.9 million grant to assist in the creation of such a system.  Idaho accepted this grant.  However, according to the grant guidelines Idaho was forced to fast-track the creation of the data depository; as a result, the 3 year plan was ditched in favor of a speedier (and apparently totally inept) timeline.

In addition, in 2009 Idaho also ponied up $2.4 million dollars of taxpayer-funded money to add to the pile of cash tossed over by the feds.  That brings the total in 2009 to $8.3 million.

However, big data must also need big money because $8.3 million wasn’t enough to satiate the data monster.  In 2011 Idaho applied for an additional $21 million bucks from the feds.  That request was bluntly denied, as seen in the statement above, by the US Dept. of Education.

Again, the rejection should have been a moment for pause on reflection and redirection on the distribution and management of project funds in the creation of the database.  Unsurprisingly, the state decided, instead, to push the pedal further to the floor.

Instead, legislators cozied up to Idaho’s best friend, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, for the cash.  The foundation awarded the state $21 million bucks to help push forward the project.  That brings the total to $29.3 million (the rationale of the Albertson Foundation  in handing out a hefty sack of cash will get a blog post of its own later).

However, Idaho was able to sucker some additional money out of the feds in 2012, albeit not the twenty million they failed to get earlier. One grant for $3,101,632 was awarded by the National Center for Education Statistics to work on the system.  That brings the total to $32,401,632.

An additional grant of $1 million was awarded by the US Dept. of Labor to also work on the system bringing the total to $33,401,632.

As reported in Idaho Education News, in 2012, Superintendent Luna requested the state chip in additional $2.5 million.  Ditto 2013.  That brings the total to $38,401,632.

Hysterically, the system developed using this gold vault was such a total bust and completely dysfunctional (more on that, too, later) the legislature actually approved $2 million dollars in additional funds to be used to pay for alternatives of the State’s system.   That brings the total to $40,401,632.

That money was dispersed directly to districts with the recommendation that districts spend those funds on whatever alternative private system they prefer because the multimillion dollar Frankenstein data monster created by the state was a colossal failure.

The system was so dysfunctional that Idaho Ed News reported that Representative Horman (presumably exasperated at the incompetence) inquired, “Is it [ISEE / Schoolnet] working anywhere, for any purpose, to improve education?”  The only thing the system seemed good at collecting, it appears, is more money.

Strangely, the legislature then hashed out $1.6 million of “maintenance” money for ISEE.  Strange because it is impossible to “maintain” something that is dysfunctional to begin with; it is akin to paying money to change a vehicle’s oil when the transmission is  broken: what’s the point?  Oh, and for the record, that brings the total to $42,001,632.

Stranger still because the state was well aware districts had already (wisely) bailed off the ship to purchase or develop alternative systems of their own.  Many districts have to pay staff valuable hours (costs not reported here) to reformat data from these other systems in order to comply with the onerous ISEE system requirements.

Worse yet, as noted in the Idaho Statesman, the data that actually manages to appear in the SchoolNet portion of the system is so blatantly inaccurate that districts refuse to use the results even when data actually miraculously manages to appear on the screen.

For example, The Statesman reported that Cindy Sission of West Ada School District (formerly Meridian School District) explained that the results of the SAT exam shown in SchoolNet stated only 2 percent of district students were college proficient.  The real result, calculated outside of schoolNet, were closer to forty.

In other words, even when the data actually manages to make it into the hands of teachers and administrators, it can’t be trusted.  That’s an oops of million dollar proportions.

Indeed, even before the funds “to buy somebody elses system ‘cuz ours just doesn’t seem to be workin” were provided, many of Idaho’s districts were already paying their own bills for alternative systems.

It gets better.  The state has since engaged in an apologetics of sorts; the Albertson Foundation went so far as to a release a comical “What We Did Wrong in Developing ISEE/SchoolNet” document.

The excuses vary: It is just really hard; Pearson was inexperienced (company hired to develop the software);educators  and politicians just don’t understand the complexity  of creating such a complicated system!

All of this might be true if there just didn’t happen to be a system right here in Idaho, developed by an educator, that does exactly what the state’s $42 million dollar beast seems incapable of performing.

It turns out that former Blaine Superintendent Jim Lewis has a company that developed a home-grown data system that somehow gets around the state’s apologetics and actually does its job.

Lewis’s product is named Mileposts; districts both inside and outside the state have long been using the product since they saw the writing on the wall regarding ISEE and SchoolNet.

The catch is that it’s not free.  It costs a whopping five dollars per student.  That’s right: five real big dollars.  That’s twenty quarters per kido!

So let’s do the math.  According to the Idaho State Dept. of Education, in the 2013-2014 school year there were 289,063 K-12 students in the State of Idaho.  At five bucks a student, that works out to be $1,445,315.

While ISEE and SchoolNet likely would have difficulty comparing these numbers, it is obvious that the homegrown system which actually works, at about $1.5 million, is a bargain in comparison to the $42 million cost of state’s monster.

But wait!  It gets worse.  That’s because despite the fact ISEE and SchoolNet are completely dysfunctional, Idaho will need to pay $4.5 million a year to “maintain” its broken monster.  That’s right: taxpayers will need to pay to maintain something that doesn’t work.  Clearly that makes sense.

Sorry, but the $42 million ISEE/SchoolNet is a true monster.  Like the fictional monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, Idaho may have had the best of intentions.  But then again, what is it they say about the road to hell?

The fictional story might also offer some great advice to our state’s leaders: remember, when the monster was unleashed into the world it didn’t bode well for its creator or anybody else.  Perhaps we should consider reeling in this monster while there is still time.

To be fair the Idaho Legislature is also seeing the monster in the room and has issued a call for a comprehensive evaluation and report of the system.

The kicker: That report isn’t due in winter of 2015, and whatever “fixes” are suggested will likely take years after that. In the meantime, the monster runs loose.


1 thought on “Frankenstein: Idaho’s $42 Million Inept Data Monster

  1. Darrel Richards

    I was tracking with the author’s point of view until I read the passage below and realized how uninformed (or unobjective) the author is.

    “It turns out that former Blaine Superintendent Jim Lewis has a company that developed a home-grown data system that somehow gets around the state’s apologetics and actually does its job.”

    The Mileposts system was actually presented to the ISDE. It was a piece of garbage, suitable only for tracking data within a single independent school district….which as it turns out is the easy part. The real obstacle is that the districts are independent so there’s a huge variety of technologies used (including some districts that use paper records to track everything). The districts are also hostile to the ISDE because they’ve learned that if they fight the ISDE, eventually Legislature will appropriate money directly to them.. which is what ALL bureaucrats prefer.



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