Thursday 12 March 2015

What the sale of Pearson's Powerschool says about the sad state of the global SIS sector

Pearson are looking to sell Powerschool. Here's why, in the words of Pearson CEO John Fallon:
"After careful consideration, we decided that these systems do not align with Pearson’s stated commitment to focus on products and services that shape student outcomes in a way we can directly measure and improve."
That sentence says a lot about the sad state of the global School Information System (SIS) market. The CEO of the company that produces the world's largest SIS (70 countries 13m students; $97m revenues; $20m operating income, according to Edsurge) doesn't see his product as something that can shape student outcomes. Think about that for a second. The SIS is, after all, the home of student data. It's where you store attendance, assessment, exam, behaviour and other contextual data. You know, the things that, umm, shape student outcomes.

I want to stress: I'm not in any way criticising Fallon. His rationale for describing Powerschool as non-core for Pearson does make sense to me. (Mind you, the FT and the Economist are not obviously school improvement products, but that hasn't prompted Pearson to sell their stake in either just yet.) What I'm saying is that his comment points to a terrible truth: the education sector sees the SIS primarily as an administrative tool, rather than as a school improvement system.

It doesn't have to be like this. After all, most school leaders now understand that if you use any half-decent SIS properly, you'll improve outcomes. Strong schools take time to decide what inputs to record. They then use the SIS to store and track those inputs: things like attainment, progress, attendance and behaviour. And most importantly, they analyse the data and take appropriate action based on what it tells them. So the problem is not that the SIS can't improve outcomes; it's that vendors haven't worked out how to give themselves an edge in this area.

Vendors who understand this have an opportunity to disrupt the sector by making it their mission to do exactly what Fallon things is not possible: measure and improve how the SIS can impact student outcomes. Here are some approaches they could consider:
  1. Make it much, much easier to track assessment. Anyone who's set up assessment templates in an SIS will know that it is often a bit of a mission to get a progress tracking system set up in a school. It's harder still if you want to use the same assessment model across multiple schools. There's just way too much manual, non-intuitive work involved. And there's no reason why an SIS couldn't include tools to make data collection and moderation easier, like online tests and past papers. 
  2. Set the data free with open APIs. If you've read my blog before, you'll know that sooner or later I shoehorn in a reference to open APIs. That's partly because I'm by nature a boringly repetitive person. But it's also because I'm right. Indulge me for a second while I rehearse the argument: in any industry, anywhere, ever, innovation in sector-spanning data systems requires agreement on how to share data (think BACS, for example). But way too often, SIS vendors make it hard or expensive to interoperate with other systems. So if you want to build a great testing tool, or parent portal, or analytics system, you have to work really hard to make your system talk to the different SIS out there, let alone integrate with other systems (e.g. HR, finance). That's holding everyone back. So SIS vendors need to start believing in open APIs. Even better, they could converge around common standards and principles. SIF 3.0, anyone? 
  3. Think about how to track the effectiveness and cost of interventions. I've not yet seen any school really nail how they track initiatives (new curricula; one-to-one interventions; pupil premium spend) in a way that properly interrogates their value for money and impact on progress. That's in no small part because I'm not aware of any software that really makes this easy to do. SIS vendors might want to get on that.
  4. Be more global. Powerschool is a rarity, in that it is a global SIS. Most vendors make a system for their home market, and in doing so, they keep their horizons - and development budgets - small.
  5. Integrate the SIS more tightly with the learning platform. To move this along, one of the big platform vendors, like Blackboard, could buy one of the big SIS, like Powerschool. Oh, hang on...
A huge amount of money is flowing into edtech, but school information is not getting its fair share of investment. And yet, when used in the right way, the SIS really can be a school improvement goldmine. It's time for investors and innovators to open their eyes to its potential.