School Management Information System Implementation and Its Impact on the Loosely Coupled Organizational Structure of an Elementary School: A Case Study

 

Dr. Robert S. Isherwood- Assistant Professor at Slippery Rock University

Dr. Richael Barger-Anderson- Assistant Professor at Slippery Rock University

Dr. Joseph Merhaut- Assistant Professor at Slippery Rock University

 

Abstract

Qualitative research was conducted in an elementary school in Western Pennsylvania to determine if conditions for change would be created in the schoolís socio-technical subsystems resulting from the implementation of a school management information system (SMIS).  The school, as a socio-technical organization, is comprised of a technical, task, human, and structural subsystem.  Significant changes occurred in the structural sub-system which included more collaboration between regular education teachers, special education teachers, and the Title I teacher, more awareness of student achievement issues on the part of faculty and staff, and more collaboration between teachers when making decisions about grouping students for instruction.  School administrators would benefit from understanding the implications of SMIS implementation on the loosely coupled nature of schools.  The result may be a tighter coupling of the organization resulting in improved decision-making, planning, and policy development.

Key Words:

School Management Information System

Socio-Technical Organization

Loosely-Coupled Organization

Structural Subsystem

Teacher Collaboration

 

 

            Since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools are attempting to move from opportunity-oriented organizations characterized by subjective decision-making to ones that are data driven and results oriented (Isherwood, 2004).  One innovation school administrators and instructional staff are utilizing to make this transformation is school management information systems (SMIS).  Telem (1990) reports that the introduction of a management information system into a school environment can contribute to improved performance, strengthened educational leadership, and goal achievement.  This can assist the school in overcoming stagnation.  However, schools have historically lagged behind non-educational organizations in the implementation and utilization of management information systems (Telem, 1996).

            Implementation of any technical innovation into a school system can be a difficult and arduous task because of the loosely coupled nature of schools.  Teachers and staff members work in relative isolation throughout the school day and have a certain level of professional autonomy.  The isolation that teachers experience on a day-to-day basis serves to support the organizational status quo and hinder the implementation and utilization of technical innovations. Zaltman and Duncan (1977) indicate that poor communication channels within any organization results in weaknesses in the procedures for disseminating new technologies within an organization.   It is also a primary source of resistance to technology. 

            One of the intents of school management information system implementation is to overcome the loosely coupled conditions of the school by providing information to the instructional managers in complex and ill-structured decision situations (Isherwood, 2004).  According to Telem (1999), an SMIS is a management information system designed to match the structures, management tasks, instructional processes, and special needs of the school and provide decision support to the decision system that is a regular part of organizational and instructional management. A comprehensive SMIS manages a school or districtís key functional data including, but not limited to, enrollment, student and staff demographics, course enrollments, class schedules, attendance, disciplinary actions, special programs, grades, standardized assessments, and health information (Telem, 1996).  Vischer (1996) believes that SMIS can provide teachers and administrators with the information required for informed planning, policy-making, and evaluation; in addition, a SMIS can assist in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of schools.  Bober (2001) indicates that the growing interest in SMISís and the trend toward thoughtful, long-range planning for SMIS implementation stem from the belief within the school community that such systems allow for better site and district management, empower staff at all levels, and increases a school or districtís accountability to the community it serves. 

            Nolan (1996) contends that the extent to which a SMIS can impact a school depends on the school administratorsí and educational practitionersí perception of it either as a means to retain administrative and managerial decision making in the hands of the school hierarchy and office staff, serving mainly administrative purposes, or as a tool to which the faculty as a whole should have access and use for shared decision making and collaborative actions.  Fulmer (1995) suggests in order for a SMIS to be utilized effectively, it should be designed through an inductive process that includes stakeholders from all levels of the organization in order that faculty will take ownership of the system and actually use it. According to Nolan (1996), effective utilization of an information system depends as much on the strategy for developing the system, the methods for supporting its implementation, and the mindset of its users, as it does the technical attributes of the system itself.

 

Socio-Technical Systems Theory and

School Management Information Systems

 

            Research studies on innovations in educational contexts have documented scores of failures resulting from poor administrative planning, insufficient time given to teachers to learn new practices, the lack of a strong change agent facilitating the implementation of the innovation, and the resistance of teachers to accept new practices brought about by new innovations.  The problem appears to be that most innovations seek to change behavior-to alter discrete, describable, and tangible actions (Corbett, Firestone, & Rossman, 1987).  As a result, many curriculum and instruction innovations never find their way into the classroom.

            Owens and Steinhoff (ibid) have recognized the advantage of introducing innovations and planned changes in schools using a socio-technical systems approach.  The term socio-technical implies two fundamental concepts; a social system and a technical system.  Socio-Technical Theory describes the complex relationships between people, tasks, and technology, and helps determine how these can be used to advantage (Cooper, Gencturk & Lindley, 1996).  Such a view of the organization emphasizes the wholeness of the system and the dynamic interrelatedness of its subsystems.  The term interrelated means that there are many complex connections among the parts of the system (Armel, 1997). 

            The school, as a socio-technical organization, is made of four subsystems: human, technical, structural, and task (Owens & Steinhoff, 1976).  The human subsystem is comprised of superintendents, teachers, administrators, and support staff who are typically engaged in tasks such as delivery of instruction, development of curriculum, and evaluation of student progress.  If schools are going to perform these types of tasks, they require structure.  It is structure that gives school systems order.  Structure helps to define roles for members by establishing patterns of authority and collegiality.  In school systems, there are superintendents, principals, teachers, custodians, etc., each of who attempts to understand the extent of his/her legitimate role and authority and that of others.  Structure, dictates in large measure, the patterns and channels of communication networks that is basic to information flow and therefore, decision-making (Owens & Steinhoff, 1976).  Structure also often determines the way work is completed in order to achieve the schoolís tasks.

            Finally, the organization must also have technological resources in order to complete tasks and achieve goals.  Technological resources may include hardware and software, textbooks, chalkboards, electronic microscopes, etc.  It may also include program inventions: systemic procedures, the sequencing of activities, or other procedural inventions designed to solve problems that stand in the way of organizational task achievement (Owens & Steinhoff, 1976). 

These four subsystems are variables that differ from time to time and from one organization to the next.  Within a given organization these four factors are highly interactive, each tending to shape and mold the others.  Owens and Steinhoff (ibid) believe that these four factors are the critical elements to be dealt with when attempting to initiate change or implement an innovation in an organization.  They further contend that as in any system, the interdependence of the variable systems means that a significant change in one will result in some adaptation and/or change on the parts of the other systems.  This concept is the key to selecting strategies and tactics for organizational change.

 

Research Methodology

 

The purpose of this qualitative case study was to examine the implementation of a management information system into a school.  In particular, the researcher investigated changes that occurred in the socio-technical subsystems of the school as a result of the implementation of an SMIS during the period of early adoption.  This period is known as the redefining/restructuring stage of implementation (Rogers, 2003).  The specific question framing this inquiry was, ďDoes the implementation of a school management information system create conditions for change in a schoolís socio-technical subsystems?Ē

 

            A case study design using the naturalistic inquiry method was employed to gain an in-depth understanding of the situation and to gather meaning for the researcher and the relevant audience.  Merriam (1998) suggests that case studies are different from other types of qualitative research in that they are intensive descriptions and analyses of a single unit or bounded system such as an individual, program, innovation, event, group, intervention, or community.  Using the naturalistic approach allowed the evaluator to study the implementation of the SMIS and its effect on the schoolís subsystems as it occurred naturally, without constraining, manipulating, or controlling it, and provide a detailed description of the case that was under study.  The intent was not to establish a cause-effect relationship, but to offer understanding and generate patterns inductively from the data.  These patterns were confirmed through triangulation of data sources, which lent credibility to the researcherís judgment. 

 

            The case or bounded system that was studied in this investigation was a suburban elementary school located in Western Pennsylvania about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh.  The elementary school is a kindergarten through grade six school with approximately 520 students and 40 faculty and staff members.  The school was implementing an integrated school management information system and was at the redefining/restructuring stage of implementation. 

            The SMIS was a web-based system with multiple components that were designed to be a total student management information system.  The SMIS components included an attendance component, an electronic grade book component, a progress report component, a student-scheduling component, an IEP writing component, a lesson planner component, and an individual academic student profile component that contained academic achievement data from multiple standardized and district developed assessments.  Teachers were able to access the various components of the SMIS using their desktop computers. 

 

            The investigator used a case study approach and as a result, purposeful sampling was the method of choice used for identifying the subjects for the study.  This technique was used because the investigator wished to discover, understand, and gain the most insight possible about this particular phenomenon.

Purposeful sampling is the process of selecting information rich subjects/cases for study in depth.  Information rich cases are those from which one can learn a great deal about the issues of central importance to the purpose of the research. 

            The subjects in this case study included twenty school district employees that worked in various roles in the school and Technology Department in the school district.  The subjects included the Director of Technology, an instructional support teacher, a Title I teacher, the school secretary, the school principal, two special education teachers, and thirteen regular education teachers.

 

Data collection occurred over a six-month period and included many of the usual methods used in qualitative research.  Semi-structured interviews were conducted with classroom teachers and school personnel two times during the study.  An interview guide was used containing several specific questions, some open-ended questions that were followed up with probes and a list of topics and issues related to the SMIS. 

Other sources of data included documents generated by and related to the SMIS such as attendance reports, progress reports, report cards, and student profile reports. Grade level meeting minutes, memos about the SMIS, and formal and informal correspondence were also included in the document analysis.  Finally, structured observations took place in classrooms, grade level meetings, and in the principalís office.  

            The content of interviews, field notes, and documents was analyzed for

themes and recurring patterns of meaning.  Content analysis involved the coding of raw data and the construction of categories that captured relevant characteristics of the documentís data.  Memoís were then written as the coding

and analysis occurred.  Glasser (1978) defines memos as the theorizing write-up of ideas about codes and their relationship as they strike while coding.  The memos were then used to write up an interim case summary.  A final report was formed from the interim report.

 

Findings

 

            Structural Subsystem

 

            Findings from analysis of the data related to issues involving the SMIS and the structural subsystem of the school revealed that the SMIS had an impact on the loosely coupled nature of the school.  Because teachers routinely identified the increased level of communication and collaboration that occurred with their colleagues as a function of the student achievement data provided by the SMIS, coupling was identified as an emergent theme.

            School systems are traditionally loosely coupled organizations in which people work in isolated environments (classrooms) most of the day and spend very little time interacting with their colleagues.  The structural subsystem found  within a school is often not conducive to change or to the adoption of new innovations.  Owens and Steinhoff (ibid) believe that the introduction of a technological innovation that result in structural changes within an organization will almost always produce compensatory or retaliatory behaviors on the part of the people within the organization.  There is data within this case study to support the notion that the SMIS did increase communication and collaboration producing a positive outcome.  When a primary teacher was asked, ĎHas the SMIS created a condition for more communication with your colleagues?Ē She responded the following way,

Yes, the data we have received from the SMIS has played a role in determining some of the academic grouping decisions we make. For example, the students we are switching at the start of the new six

week grading period is a result of the first grade team looking at the data on the student profiles and making those changes.  We specifically looked at the STAR Math scores and DIBELS scores. We discuss the results provided by the SMIS reports and try to group the kids appropriately.  

            This type of response was commonly heard when conducting interviews.Teachers were much more engaged in discussion of student achievement and grouping placements based on the information they were receiving from the SMIS than they were prior to implementation.  A sixth grade teacher provided the following insight,

I spend more time talking with my colleagues about particular students since the Title I teacher has been giving us the reports.This was especially true when reviewing the student profiles and making recommendations for placements next year at the junior high school.  We are better able to identify the advanced and struggling students, discuss the challenges they may face next year, and make better recommendations for their class schedules to the guidance counselors from the junior high.

            Changes in the inter-relational patterns also tightened between the Title I teacher and the regular education teachers in the school resulting from her role and responsibilities for providing achievement data to the staff produced by the SMIS.  The Title I teacher was responsible for providing assessment reports to the regular education teachers and for sharing student profile results with them.  Teachers routinely asked her to play a more significant role in helping them to make grouping placement decisions because of her increased awareness and knowledge of the achievement of a greater number of students.  The Title I teacher also felt teachers placed more value on her opinions because the principal was using her in a leadership role.  This can be heard in her commentary.

I have been given more responsibility by the principal.

I am responsible for assessing students and gathering data. Teachers come to me now and ask my advice about specific students. I think I have more status in the school as a result of my role with the new SMIS and the information I have from it.   

Although the coupling of the school appeared to tighten in general, teacher instructional practices did not seem to change much.  According to the administration, one of the original intents of implementing the SMIS was to provide teachers with more information about students in order to improve classroom instruction.  Teachers became more aware of student achievement, but did not adjust their teaching or curriculum planning.   Data that supports this finding can be heard in the interview of the instructional support teacher,

The problem is that when I review achievement reports with the teachers they donít seem to want to do anything with the data.  They really donít seem to want to change the way they teach.  They arenít looking at the information and using it to improve

instruction.  I review the quarterly reports with them and they only skim the data and pick out students whose parents will complain if a low assessment score is sent home.  They usually ask me to retest

the student to improve the test-taking conditions because they donít want to be held accountable for low scores.  They donít go to their colleagues and plan instruction or identify weaknesses and address

those weaknesses. 

            A fifth grade teacher responded the following way when asked, ďDo teachers use the data from the SMIS to change instruction?Ē

A few do, most donít.  It really isnít because they want to ignore the data.  It is that most teachers donít know what to do with the data once they get it.  More professional development needs to be given on data driven instruction.  Right now a lot of teachers donít

like this system and arenít using it because they arenít sure what to do with it. 

            As interview data was analyzed, it became apparent that many teachers were somewhat skeptical of the administrationís purpose for implementing the SMIS and were discouraged by the process of implementation of the system.  This can heard in the voice of a first grade teacher,

Teacher input into the development of the SMIS, like so many other initiatives and programs in our school district, was not solicited.  Like so many other things around here it was dumped on us and we were told

we would be using it.  There was no trial period for many of the components.At least with the lesson planner component, we will be given a trial period.

I would like to see someone from administration try to plan a lesson on it.  The administration has unrealistic expectations of the planner and the people using it.  I already have a template developed for my lesson plans. Why do I need to redo all of next yearís lessons?  What a waste of time! 

            In general, there were three significant findings when analyzing data about the structural subsystem.  First, the SMIS played a role in tightening the inter-relation patterns among faculty members within the school.  More collaboration about student grouping placements occurred as teachers reviewed reports from the SMIS and made decisions.  However, very few teachers made adjustments to their instructional practices or planned curriculum differently based on the SMIS reports.  Many teachers did not utilize the system to its full potential because they indicated they did not have enough training to provide data driven instruction.

            Second, the inter-relation patterns between the Title I teacher and the other elementary teachers in the school tightened.  The Title I teacher reported more communication and collaboration occurred with her colleagues because she was responsible for inputting data into the system and analyzing the data.  She also distributed reports to the faculty.  Because of this, she began to develop more status within the school and had more influence on other faculty members.

Finally, teachers did not seem to value the data they were receiving from the SMIS and were not receptive to changing instructional practices.  Again, many indicated that they were poorly trained to implement data driven instruction and didnít know what to do with the reports other than make grouping placement changes when appropriate. Some viewed the system with disdain and

felt that it was adding additional work to their task subsystem instead of reducing their workload.

These findings suggest that implementing a SMIS in a school has the potential to change the structural subsystem by providing a means for more communication regarding student achievement.  The end result is a tighter coupling of the school environment. However, additional teacher training may be necessary to create an instructional environment in which data from an SMIS is driving instructional practices of classroom teachers. Many teachers may not be adequately trained to analyze and interpret data from a SMIS. 

 

Implications for Policy and Practice

 

            As this investigation unfolded, it became clear that a deeper look into the process of implementation is necessary if serious school reform is to occur.  Many curriculum and instruction innovations are implemented with the intent of school improvement, but produce minimal results.  Effective implementation of improvement projects such as SMIS seem dependent on a setting that is supportive and that can easily adapt to the innovation.  This is typically not the case in school systems.

            School systems are often wrought with policies and procedures that serve to stifle the systemís ability to adapt and overcome based on the needs of the moment.  This inability can sometimes be traced back to the policy-makerís notion of what an idea or innovation should be and the practitionerís notion of what really is.  These conflicting viewpoints create a certain kind of tension that leads to failure during the process of implementation.  Policy makers would be wise to consider such things as the loosely coupled nature of schools, the isolation that teachers work in throughout the day, the flexibility that is necessary to successfully implement innovations, and most importantly, the practitionerís reality when developing policies of school improvement.

            If it is serious school reform that is the goal, policy makers must stop taking a simplistic view of the school system and the subsystems that exist within the school environment and begin to consider implementation and innovations from the practitionerís perspective.  The subtlety of honing ideas and innovations to fit particular settings and situational demands is a complex process that involves teachers, principals, and the students working with policy makers to create optimal conditions. 

            The implementation of SMIS is increasing in school districts in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States.  In March 2006, the Pennsylvania Department of Education announced the beginning of the first phase of a new education data management initiative that will allow the state to more accurately track student progress.  The new Pennsylvania Information Management System is intended to provide school districts access to longitudinal data to support local instructional decision making and at the same time reduce the reporting workload at the local level by streamlining various reporting processes (Pennsylvania School Boards Association Legislative Report, 2006).  Pennsylvania won a $4 million dollar grant from the federal government to develop the system.

These systems have potential to influence the way in which practitioners such as principals and teachers engage students in teaching and learning, and they have potential to transform the planning and operation of schools.  The complexity of the educational process on both an operational and structural level almost requires school systems to implement SMIS in order to provide organizational members with the type of information that is necessary to meet the requirements of the state and federal governments regarding student achievement.  In particular, schools in Pennsylvania must meet the requirements of the Pennsylvania Accountability System and the federal No Child Left Behind

law.  Utilizing SMIS in a productive way requires an understanding of the complexities of implementation and the potential for users.  The following is a list of guidelines that school administrators should consider before implementing a SMIS:

        Involve operational level people in the development and implementation of the SMIS.

        Identify goals and objectives for implementing an SMIS and share the goals and objectives with all organizational members.

        Consider cultural values, traditions, and practices of the social system within the organization before implementing an SMIS.

        Be prepared to redefine and restructure both the SMIS and the schoolís socio-technical subsystems in order to create a fit between the two.

        Provide frequent training opportunities for faculty and staff to help reduce uncertainty associated with the SMIS.

        Realize that implementing an SMIS will result in changes in the four socio-technical subsystems.  These changes may be planned or may be unanticipated consequences of implementation. 

Once successful implementation has been reached, and a majority of the schoolís teaching staff is utilizing the data that these systems provide, more appropriate instructional planning and decision-making can occur, ultimately leading to increased student achievement and accountability.  The problem appears to be that many schools are not effectively training teachers to adequately interpret and analyze data from these systems.  Bernhardt (2002) believes that in many cases, the data from SMIS is not easy to access, is often in forms that are not easy to understand, a limited number of persons knowledgeable enough to work with data are present in schools, or teachers donít even know the data exists.   

Bernhardt (2005) suggests that ďwith effective data tools, teachers and administrators can pinpoint which students are meeting-or falling short of learning objectives, and what strategies will help each learner succeed.  Educators need tools that get data directly into their hands and ease the process of interpreting data.Ē

As implementation of these systems continues to increase across the United States, research needs to be conducted in order to determine the following:

        strategies for successfully implementing a SMIS;

        the effect SMIS can have on the supervision and evaluation of classroom teachers;

        the type of data reports produced by SMIS that can be effectively utilized by classroom teachers to improve classroom instruction;

        the relationship between teachersí years of service and level of education and utilization of SMIS and technology in general;

        ways that SMIS can improve school district policy making and program planning; and

        changes in teacherís daily task subsystem as a result of SMIS implementation.

With the continued emphasis on school accountability as indicated in the various state accountability systems and the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools will continue to spend large sums of money implementing SMIS.  If school administrators and policy makers wish to utilize these systems to ultimately improve schools, this research agenda cannot be ignored.  

 

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