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Pilot study to examine aspects of K-12 student-information systems

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

LAWRENCE — Most U.S. school districts use a student information system to manage data such as attendance, grades and disciplinary notes because it gives parents, students, teachers and administrators immediate access to day-to-day school operations.

Hundreds of vendors of such systems, such as PowerSchool, Skyward and Infinite Campus, tout access to this information as a huge benefit, including more easily allowing parents to get involved in their child's school life on a regular basis.

Yet, despite the widespread adoptions of these student information systems, no study has assessed how school stakeholders actually use and experience SIS systems and what effects these systems have on users.

Two University of Kansas researchers recently received a Spencer Foundation Grant to examine whether SIS systems build or undermine trust among stakeholders in schools.

"Do participants credit the SIS with better educational outcomes for students?" said Bill Staples, professor of sociology and principal investigator for the grant. "Alternatively, given the capability that an SIS offers users to track and 'judge' others' behaviors, does it function to undermine trust and student outcomes?"

Staples, who is also director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at KU's Institute for Policy and Social Research, said parents, for instance, can inspect actions and choices of students as well as teachers without either one knowing. Similarly, school and district administrators can use SIS systems to check on teachers, who themselves can track students.

"Contrary to the intended objective of an SIS, these dynamics may result in the decline of trust and cooperation in educational settings," Staples said. "Thus, it is important to understand whether the close contact and accountability produced by an SIS is perceived and/or used in a way that actually undermines trust in others and attachment to the school."

Staples and co-principal investigator Argun Saatcioglu, associate professor of education and courtesy professor of sociology, said the study is crucial because past research has shown trust is an important foundation of student success. Teachers must trust their students are conducting their work honestly and with integrity and vice versa, they said. Parents put trust in teachers' competence and expertise, while teachers also trust administrators to set up appropriate procedures and curricula.

But suspicion and strained relationships could undermine that trust and create strained relationships among all stakeholders, producing a "low-trust" school culture, Staples said.

The researchers as part of a pilot study will conduct in-depth interviews with SIS stakeholders that will include high school students, parents, teachers and administrators in several regional school districts.

"Our goal will be to derive accounts of how the SIS actually operates, understand the unique perspective of each stakeholder and how they experience and make sense of their lives with an SIS," Staples said.

The team will use the results to shape a larger research study on the topic. Future research could center on how the level of trust and SIS experiences differ among affluent districts as opposed to those in urban or rural schools, he said.

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