Ultimatum to IBM on data system

In an escalation of tensions, the state Department of Education has notified the vendor of CALPADS, the troubled statewide student data system, that it faces a termination of the contract for “substandard” work and a failure to meet deadlines. The Department is giving IBM 15 days to present a plan detailing how it will fix existing problems, avoid future contract violations, and quickly complete the project.

Richard Zeiger, the new Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, wrote the bluntly worded letter to an IBM vice president on Feb. 11. He concluded by saying, “CDE reserves all its rights, including, without limitation, the right to reject the corrective action plan at its sole discretion and terminate for default.”

The letter signals that  state Superintendent Tom Torlakson plans to aggressively press IBM to deliver a project that is more than a year late. IBM has been paid half of its $13.9 million contract, Keric Ashley, the director of the department’s Data Management Division, said last month.

Using a unique identifier, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System is designed to track every K-12 student through the system, providing data on attendance and courses, and offering researchers insights into teacher training and into programs that work and don’t work in schools. The state is committed to providing the federal government with accurate four-year graduation and dropout rates later this summer – or risk being forced to reimburse the federal government for stimulus money.

But CALPADS has been in turmoil since October, when Gov. Schwarzenegger, frustrated by missed deadlines, vetoed $7 million from the Department’s oversight budget for the project. The project has limped along ever since, but Gov. Jerry Brown, resisting calls to ask the Legislature to restore the money, has called an interagency group to take stock of the project and its overall aims. Brown’s ambivalence toward CALPADS has alarmed CALPADS proponents, who say that California has already fallen behind other states in the use of student data.

The latest skirmish is over Fall 2, the second of four data batches that IBM is to deliver. Zeiger wrote that IBM failed to comply with two demands. An operating manual is now two years late, and IBM  failed to meet the eight-hour window for overnight processing of data – which is  important to districts uploading the information.

Zeiger then offered a general critique. “The overall quality of the services and deliverables provided by IBM under the Contract are substandard and fail to meet the Contract requirements.” He said that logs, district comments, reports, and regular correspondence back up that assessment.

Building up the case for termination, he wrote, “IBM’s continuous failure to meet the Contract Schedule, IBM’s quality failures and IBM’s various failures to satisfy the contract specifications each constitute material breach of the Contract entitling CDE to terminate the Contract, acquire similar services and deliverables and to charge IBM for any excess costs.”

Neither Ashley nor Zeiger would comment on the letter, pending a response from IBM to the 15-day deadline. Update: IBM issued the following statement: “IBM is reviewing the specifics of the February 3rd letter from the California Department of Education and will continue to work in partnership with CDE to meet the ambitious scope of this project. CalPADS currently is operational and California school districts are successfully using it to submit information that is vital to tracking the progress of the State’s students. The project is in its final phase and we are on track to deliver remaining system functionality by the end of this school year.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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