Monday, May 30, 2011

Bahamas: The time has long passed for the nation to demand value for its money in public Education

Education: Are your children getting value for money?

Tribune Staff Reporter
Nassau, The Bahamas

Last week during a public address Education Minister Desmond Bannister said it is time for the nation to "demand value for (its) money."

The Minister was wrong about only one thing: The time has long passed. The government consistently invests some $200 million in the Ministry of Education annually. So the Minister was definitely correct in saying the nation has great expectations for its education leaders.

Most of the Ministry's budget is allocated to the Department of Education, with as much as 70 per cent going towards salaries. That leaves the department with under $30 million to distribute amongst the various school boards; to purchase school supplies and equipment for the 4000 teachers across 160 schools and everything in between. That $30 million is bolstered by millions of dollars in funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Since the mid-1990s, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has spent well over $70 million in IDB money.

Despite the cumulative billions spent on education, the public school system still leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to technology. Less than 10 out of 160 schools in the system have publicly funded computer labs, and only a handful more has self-funded labs. Computer literacy amongst the nation's teachers is still woefully low, which has hampered the transition from "chalk and talk" classrooms to multimedia centres of learning. To this day, there is still no information technology (IT) curriculum for the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE). The closest the public school system gets to preparing our students for the technology needs of the twenty-first century is a BGCSE in keyboarding.

I am taking the minister up on his public invitation; I only hope the guardians of the nation's education system are really prepared for the scrutiny. The truth is often inconvenient. So far there has been a pleasantly surprising level of openness at the directorate level within the department of education (DOE).

There are some harsh realities facing the education apparatus. People inside the inner circles know all too well, the MOE has many dirty little secrets. Over the years, institutional and political roadblocks have stonewalled many who tried to bring them to light.

Earlier this year, ten people were transferred from their posts in the MOE amidst investigations of corruption and theft. One of the employees, it was alleged, was found with a "laundry list" of items that had been taken from a storage unit. Police investigations into this matter stalled, because the suspects were allegedly "vouched for" by senior ministry officials. It was claimed that one of the persons involved was even transferred to a section of the ministry overseeing the current $11.8 million IDB project.

Unfortunately, this highly suspect move is not surprising to some. Informed sources claim that a culture exists at the MOE where certain people are able to escape disciplinary action because they have something to hold over the head of another. There is a fear that any given person can and will "talk ya business, and name names." The culture has created an environment where many escape judgment. Culpable employees have even become untouchable to the minister.

Despite this perceived reality, there are those who would try to project an image of no reproach. No doubt this posturing is intended to protect the reputation of the MOE and those that lead it. But in the end, this strategy seems counterproductive.

It is an unfortunate predicament, particularly for those who are genuine about creating a system deserving of our public school students. No doubt, the genuine majority outweighs the questionable few, but given the education budget, the cost of mismanagement amounts to millions of dollars in waste. One 10 per cent kickback could amount to the cost of a badly needed new computer lab for a public school.

The MOE has been on the radar of the Ministry of Finance for several years. A few years ago, Finance changed the way money is disbursed for certain procurements, such as computers, and increased its oversight of education funds provided through the IDB loan facility. There was a concern about "kickbacks" in the system, so the ministry had its financial controls tightened.

Government regulators get a bad rap for allowing this institutional impropriety, but as one high level source at the Ministry of Finance told me, when you investigate a situation, there is often enough evidence "for me to believe", but that does not mean there is sufficient "evidential fact to dismiss or prosecute".

Officials are faced with a complex system that makes it near impossible to clean up shop. They often rely on shuffling or retirements to avoid lengthy and costly investigations that can get messy for all parties involved, and destroy public confidence in the process. Even still, the MOE has a number of employees under investigation. They all remain on the government payroll, and some of them are chilling at home laughing their way to the bank.

Discussing these shortfalls is not to dismiss or overlook the positive things happening in education. Last week, the permanent secretary, Elma Garraway, proudly reminded me about how well the system is working for children of all "abilities and disabilities", pointing to the recent success of a blind student from Abaco, who secured the prestigious Bahamas Primary School Student of the Year award this year.

There are many positive education stories that deserve to be shared, and many of them are. Like the story of the model computer lab at L W Young that was independently funded by private donors based on the aggressive fund raising efforts of its former principal. But when we ask the inconvenient questions, thin-skinned educators should remember, it is not personal. The reality is when things work well in education the proof of the pudding is in the results. When things go awry the proof is in the public purse.

When the government announced its new budget last week, the MOE got "everything it asked for", as one source said, all $200 million of it. How many departments and ministries can boast of the same? The public education system is one of the nation's most important institutions, so I believe like the minister said, the country has a right to ask and a right to know if we are getting value for our money.

Given all that has been said, let us apply scrutiny to the MOE, starting in the area of information technology. The MOE has an inspiring vision of how information technology can modernize the education system and provide innovative ways to bring about a unified and automated system of data management.

Over the past two years, the MOE successfully piloted the introduction of Pearson's PowerSchool, a web-based student information software (SIS), in several public schools, including Anatol Rogers, CR Walker High School, St George's High School and Mary P Russell Junior High. The software manages student grades, attendance records, and any number of other data variables. It provides real-time access to student records for teachers, students, parents and administrators.

The implementation of an SIS system by the department of education is a key pillar of modernization. Such systems have the power to centralize all of the records in the public school network, providing administrators and policy makers access to reliable data based on any number of variables.

In practical terms, this means schools could finally have an automated process of generating report cards; teachers could stay in the comfort of their homes on a Saturday afternoon while entering assignment grades. Parents could log into the system from work and access the school records of their children. Truancy officers could log into the system from a handheld device and pull up a student record to match against any explanation a child in the field may provide. The possibilities are unlimited for a robust SIS.

Private schools in the country have long since joined the international pack. The Catholic Board of Education and a few other private schools, like the Lyford Cay School, are using the same software being piloted by the ministry. Other private schools like Queen's College, St. Andrew's School and St Augustine's College have been using a similar SIS product offered by Rediker Software Inc.

The ultimate objective of the DOE is to have every school networked through a web-based information-management system. Informed sources say, in three to five years, this could be a reality for less than $1 million per year. But the ministry is not ready to green light the full-scale implementation, for several good reasons. Chief among them: Over the six to eight years the MOE spent some $6 million on an older "dead-beat" system that has failed to live up to expectations. The government is still spending upwards of $91,000 per year on that system.

This happens to be a part of the back story to the ministry's foray into the world of education software. The PowerSchool pilot project has been deemed a success by education officials, but it represents the middle part of a story that has an unfortunate beginning. Education officials were burned badly in the past and they are doing their best not to jump into the fire again.

Over six years ago, the MOE contracted Software Technology Inc (STI), a US company specialising in SIS, to be the chosen partner to modernize the school system. The STI system was rolled out in 20 public schools. It would be an understatement to say, the MOE has been "challenged" with the implementation of STI. So much so that let us say, the MOE is about ready to send STI on its merry way, scrapping the system entirely, informed sources say.

Ask any school administrator about the STI system, and you may get the same response I first got: "That's secret." Amongst the teachers you will get a mixed bag of reactions, including a lot of frustration and disappointment.

"To be honest, my opinion of STI is that it seems to me a bit of an antiquated system that we got, because other schools are using systems that are tried and tested. Why didn't we get one of those? Why did we get that system?" asked one high school teacher.

When STI was originally rolled out, it was not an online system. So even though CV Bethel was one of the original schools on the STI pilot, its system is not online to this day and its capabilities are below expectations. The original STI was a server based programme that could only be accessed on the internal network of an individual school, said a source. The company has upgraded since it was first contracted by the MOE, but its transition has not been seamless.

One primary school teacher said the problem of STI is the level of computer literacy amongst school administrators and teachers, and the level of access to computers at schools. He works at a primary school where STI is functioning. With more training he said the system could work, but there seems to be a lack of buy in from teachers, particularly the older ones, who "are not going to learn to use the computer just to use STI."

Director of Education Lionel Sands is not ashamed to admit, the STI system is not functioning in the way it ought to. Other high-ranking sources inside the ministry echoed his sentiment: "The contract that was negotiated with STI was not in the best interest of the department."

The cost of STI continues to grow each year without the concurrent increase in benefit. In fact, two of the original 20 STI schools were removed from the network and placed in the PowerSchool pilot. Just a few weeks ago, executives from STI were in the Bahamas having high level discussions with the MOE. They visit every year to be debriefed on the experience with the system locally.

"Of course this year was no different. We explained that we were not fully satisfied with where we were with respect to the number of schools that should have been involved in STI. We were not completely satisfied that it was operating the way we thought it should be operating. Even the schools that were on STI, they were still having problems over all of these years. We sought to explain that to them," said Mr Sands.

"Certainly we did not think that the license fee we were asked to pay was justifiable in light of the fact that we were not getting the full benefit of the system," he said.

Some details of the original STI contract remain sketchy. It was signed several years before Mr Sands assumed the directorship, so there are things he said he cannot fully explain, like what has been the exact cost outlay on STI. Sources claim $6 million and perhaps more was spent originally. Mr Sands was uncertain, but said the $6 million figure could be the cumulative cost over the years. One source, however, claimed there is missing documentation in the MOE concerning transactions related to the original STI license agreement.

According to sources close to the matter, the MOE lacked the internal expertise to effectively negotiate the original agreement. And to this day, one source said, the MOE does not have the internal technical expertise to manage the system.

If a school on the system experiences a server failure on report card day, for example, there is no system plan in place to solve that problem. This scenario played itself out in the past. The MOE has to give STI technicians an all-expense paid vacation in the Bahamas to handle any major technical problem that arise. The teachers who were originally trained to manage STI have since been redeployed to teach. Only one of the originally trained persons is still assigned to deal with STI.

When the STI system was implemented, there was "not a lot of forward thinking and planning", said the source. In some instances, for example, schools had to manually calculate the cumulative grade point averages for their finalizing students, because the STI system could not account for students' historical data. So STI report cards that were generated by the system had handwritten cumulative GPAs, according to a source. Details such as this were not taken into proper consideration in the first instance.

Further proof is the fact that to this day, all of the data on the STI system is stored off shore. In other words, the STI servers are located in the United States of America. And so a foreign country is housing government data on students in the 18 schools. Some have raised questions about the legality of that arrangement.

Mr Sands said he is not clear about how the data storage predicament came to be. As best as he can understand, he said at the time the system was launched, there was no local capacity to handle a server of that size. It was envisioned that the system would eventually migrate to the Bahamas.

The situation has somewhat changed today in that Cable Bahamas has the capacity and currently stores the data for public and private schools using the PowerSchool system. Mr Sands said localizing the MOE's database from the STI system is currently a high priority.

The bottom line in the STI saga seems to be a sense that STI should have delivered far more given the amount of time and money the government has invested in the system to date.

"We are supposed to be able now to say to a parent, if you want to see how your child is doing in school, just get online and you can see that without having to wait for report card day. That is what the system ought to be able to do. It is not doing that. Those are some of the challenges we are faced with," said Mr Sands.

"When I want to look at what a teacher is doing in a particular class I should be able to do that from my office computer, so I can see time on task; so I can see report cards being completed; so I can see how students are functioning; so I can see whether the curriculum is meeting the needs of the children. I don't have that with (the STI programme) even though it has the capacity to give me that," he said.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining for the 50,000 students in the public school system. The Director said he is still committed to getting it right and realizing the vision. And despite their frustrations, most of the stakeholders appear to be sold on the need to push forward.

"Working properly the system is very advantageous for us. I certainly would pursue something like that simply because I know the benefits of it. I have seen the benefits of it. We live in an age where we have to get away from doing all of these things manually. We can get it done with technology. There is a need no doubt about it," said Mr Sands.

So far the project has been moving at "snail's pace", said Mr Sands. There are 18 schools with STI out of 160 "over the past however long." With the speed of technological advancements, Mr Sands said he could only imagine what the MOE is missing out on. "We are still back in 2003/4 with technology of that time when we need 2011/12 technology," he said. That is another reason why the DOE wants to get it right this time around.

"That is why we want to make sure PowerSchool is giving us something that keeps us abreast and moves us. We want to make sure that as technology advances we are advancing with technology to get the best for our children. That is the bottom line. We want to see change in our instructional programmes. We want to see our student succeeding. We want to see administrators and teachers at their best using technology. We can't be in 1950 and expect that to happen in 2011," he said.

This time around the MOE has hired in the expertise. The DOE is currently using the technology consulting services of Deloitte and Touche to pilot PowerSchool. Mr Sands said he is comfortable saying, "The PowerSchool pilot has been a success", but that is not stopping the DOE from proceeding with due care.

"Our challenge is to be sure that if we were to go with PowerSchool for all of the other schools that we would get the kind of proposal from Deloitte that would be consistent with the service provided and not necessarily a money making venture for Deloitte, because you could have that whenever you have a monopoly. If you are the only person doing it you can charge me whatever you feel like simply because I need it and you are the only one doing it. And so we are very careful that we do not get into a situation where we are paying out more money than the service that we need," said Mr Sands.

"So what we are doing in addition to looking at Deloitte, we are looking at other companies that might be able to provide a similar service to see what their costing would be like, so we could compare proposals. Yes we are satisfied with Deloitte and PowerSchool, but we will not run headlong into Deloitte and PowerSchool, because we understand the nature of business. So we are cautious and will be cautious in doing that. We do not want to run the risk of doing a similar thing that STI did. Back then they saw something good that could come out of STI and they just ran with it. We want to be very careful," he said.

Deloitte and Touche was invited into the project through a recommendation by the Ministry of Finance, according to sources. The company is no stranger to government contracts. In fact, its managing partner Raymond Winder is one of the government's lead negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Sources claim, the Ministry of Finance took an interest because it was concerned about plugging the leak in STI expenditure.

The team at Deloitte operating the project, according to Tribune sources, is not off-shore, but rather "100 per cent Bahamian run", including their database administrators, security experts, project implementers and managers.

Donavan Morrison, IT Administrator at the Catholic Board of Education, said anyone running a project like PowerSchool should have expertise in areas like networking, system design, database systems, and web-based software.

"It requires a very in depth background when it comes to software development. You have to know for instance, what the server size needs to be are based on the bandwidth requirements. The person needs a huge background in networking and software implementation," he said.

There are a variety of "consulting shops" based in the Bahamas that have that type of expertise, according to sources, but not all of them are focused in the area needed by the MOE. IBM, for example, has the capacity; however, one source, with a stake in Deloitte, said, "They only sell hardware in the Bahamas."

Ernst & Young and PWC, have the capacity, but their local operation is built around auditing services, said the source. The same goes for KPMG, the consulting firm that handled the BTC sale. It focuses on "corporate finance", said the source.

The MOE has a major decision to make about pushing forward with its agenda. The best thing they can do to avoid creating any clouds of suspicion that could sour their chances at progress is to be more transparent than ever before. Government administrators should not be ashamed to speak about their past shortcomings or failures. It should be encouraged, so the public can have confidence in their ability to learn from the past.

So far, it appears that the muddy waters of the past seem to be settling. For now, in assessing the MOE's use of public funds to invest in student information software, I can say, we are not there yet, but it seems as though we are on our way to getting value for our money.

May 30, 2011