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Management information system

Qualitative research was conducted in an elementary school in Western

Pennsylvania to determine if conditions for change would be created in the

school’s 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.

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 district’s 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 SMIS’s 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 district’s accountability to the community it serves.
Nolan (1996) contends that the extent to which a SMIS can impact
a school depends on the school administrators’ and educational
practitioners’ 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 school’s 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, “Does the implementation of a
school management information system create conditions for change in a
school’s socio-technical subsystems?”

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
school’s 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 researcher’s 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 principal’s 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 document’s data. Memo’s 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, ‘Has the SMIS created a condition for
more communication with your colleagues?” 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 don’t seem to want to do anything with the data. They really don’t
seem to want to change the way they teach. They aren’t 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 don’t want to
be held accountable for low scores. They don’t go to their colleagues and
plan instruction or identify weaknesses and address
those weaknesses.
A fifth grade teacher responded the following way when asked, “Do
teachers use the data from the SMIS to change instruction?”
A few do, most don’t. It really isn’t because they want to ignore the data. It
is that most teachers don’t 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 don’t
like this system and aren’t using it because they aren’t sure what to do with
it.
As interview data was analyzed, it became apparent that many
teachers were somewhat skeptical of the administration’s 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 year’s 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 didn’t 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 system’s ability to adapt and overcome based on the
needs of the moment. This inability can sometimes be traced back to the
policy-maker’s notion of what an idea or innovation should be and the
practitioner’s 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 practitioner’s 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 practitioner’s 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
school’s 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
school’s 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 don’t even know the data exists.
Bernhardt (2005) suggests that “with 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.”
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 teachers’ 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 teacher’s 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.