An $80 Million Super-Mugging

Ah, the sweet smell of a swindle. Don’t you just hate it when consulting companies cajole deals with hand-wringing about technology and, especially, preying on clients’ lack of expertise?

I’ve seen some of these situations up close but nothing so ugly as this story.

$80 million supercomputer to analyze NYC student achievement

March 6, 2007, 7:58 AM EST NEW YORK (AP) — To understand student performance, the city will spend $80 million on a massive supercomputer that will crunch huge amounts of data and offer up-to-the-minute reports to teachers, principals and eventually parents, the Daily News reported Tuesday.

One million students and no high-volume transactional data? That might be huge to Dr. Evil but even by late 90’s standards that’s not huge. You want to talk huge? Now these are huge. The system that was sold to New York is more along the lines of a CRM system for a medium-sized insurance company.

The "super" reference here is pure drive-through mentality. In the same way that we are a nation that’s overfed and undernourished, this is about a super-sized services contract that sits atop something that could be handled by a regular-sized computer.

The information fed into the IBM-designed system called Aris, or "Achievement Reporting and Innovation System" could include existing data on students—such as gender, race and any disabilities—along with new data from incremental testing.

Some aren’t so pleased with the system’s price tag.

"You can lower a lot of class sizes with that money—or buy a lot of supplies," teachers union President Randi Weingarten said in a statement obtained by the Daily News.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the tabloid the cost was worth it.

"Every child in this city deserves a quality education and we will spare no expense," he said.

This is where the sweet smell of swindle comes in. There is a difference between being willing to make the investment and having a no-bid contract.

Jim Liebman, the Education Department’s chief accountability officer, also lauded the system.

"Aris will bring together every bit of learning information that we have on every one of our 1.1 million students," Liebman said. "Now, school professionals will be able to slice and dice that data to see what’s wrong."

Teachers are underpaid, hardly appreciated, and overworked. I can only wonder what the half-life is of a system that asks teachers to log on to get information delivered by the "chief accountability officer."

And from an article in InformationWeek, we’re enthralled by a description of the system capabilities:

"Think of a teacher trying to help a student struggling with geometry," says Michael Littlejohn, VP of public sector for IBM global services. "The teacher could tap into the system and search for best practices on geometry instruction, and get contact information for teachers identified as having strong skills in that area."

Sometimes it’s good to reinvent the wheel - usually when you’re trying to learn about wheels. But not when you’re drawing away cash from an entity that doesn’t have it to spare. Something like this could be built with off-the-shelf, mature products for a fraction of this wasted time and effort.

Sure, a fully-integrated, one-stop solution is going to run up the price but the functionality doesn’t sound particularly whiz-bang. Best practices for teaching geometry can be found at Curriki or Edutopia or Wikiversity or Openplanner or Learnamic.

The real shame is not allowing such a system to connect more than just the overworked NYC school system teachers. But what would we call such a thing? An inter-net, perhaps?

Nah, that would never catch on.

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