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Bug Education IT News

Bug Means High School Students' Schedule Errors May Last Days 443

Hugh Pickens writes "The Washington Post reports that thousands of high school students in Prince George's County missed a third day of classes Wednesday, and school officials said it could take more than a week to sort out the chaos caused by a computerized class-scheduling system as students were placed in gyms, auditoriums, cafeterias, libraries and classes they didn't want or need at high schools across the county and their parents' fury over the logistical nightmare rose. 'The school year comes up the same time every year,' said Carolyn Oliver, the mother of a 16-year-old senior who spent Wednesday in the senior lounge at Bowie High School. 'When I heard they didn't have schedules, I was like, "What have they been doing all summer?"' When school opened Monday, about 8,000 high school students had no class schedules and were sent to wait in holding spaces while administrators tried to sort things out." (More below.)
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Bug Means High School Students' Schedule Errors May Last Days

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  • by trybywrench ( 584843 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @06:07PM (#29223909)
    My wife teaches Journalism at a low income high school in Dallas. A few days before school started she was worried about scheduling and so were her coworkers since an online system they're suppose to be using had no schedules in it. Her first day was met with 60 kids in one of her Journalism class, only 5 had orginially signed up. This is a very poor school ripe with gangs which have to be kept apart but with the scheduling farked all the kids were all mixed together. She was in tears on the phone with me worried that if a fight broke out she wouldn't be able to get out of her room since she has to cross the entire class to get from her desk to the door. Her school won't let her carry a concealed weopen, I want her to carry my pistol but I'm afraid if she gets caught with it there would be criminal charges filed.

    The second day she submitted about 200 schedule changes to the counselors and had managed to get her class size down to 40. Any known bad kids she just told to leave her class, they just leave school and never come back (the first week or so is the worst then the trouble makers just stop showing up).

    Today she showed 1/2 her students a video and tried to teach the other half, I'm guessing she'll do the same tomorrow but switch halves.

    As of right now next Monday is declared a "do over first day of school" and the schedules are promised to be fixed. No one believes it though.
  • This is high school? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by codepigeon ( 1202896 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @06:12PM (#29223971)

    My daughter "selected a sewing class because she is interested in fashion design, but the school selected a basic piano class"

    What kind of high school is THIS? We were lucky to have basic computer classes when i was in high school. Sewing and piano? Spoiled bastards.

  • by tuxedobob ( 582913 ) <tuxedobobNO@SPAMmac.com> on Thursday August 27, 2009 @06:27PM (#29224131)

    One of my projects for a comp sci class in college was a scheduling system, of sorts. It was done from the student's point of view, though. I'd set it up by importing data from a CSV done in Excel, and it would know which lab sections belonged with which lecture sections of a course. It allowed you to specify preferred class times and teachers from what was available. You would enter in what required courses you needed to take, and additionally enter in several optional courses, only one of which you could take, and it would give you a list of all possible schedules, sorted from most desirable to least.

    The schedule creation was done in a PHP script which is about 6KB in size, and the whole thing is about 140KB, csv not included.

  • by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @06:32PM (#29224187)

    Why is it still happening?

    Because a significant portion (not all) of the population is unwilling to pay for adequate education. Because a significant portion (not all) of parents are disinterested in what their kids do. Because a significant faction in American politics believes there should be no public education at all and so do everything possible to sabotage it, including packing boards of public education.

    The same thing is going on in public universities. I had a history class at UT Austin with 700+ students packed into an auditorium with 600 seats. No questions allowed, as there would be no time to answer them.

  • by sampson7 ( 536545 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @06:39PM (#29224267)
    I guess I have this idealistic vision of what should happen here. Conregate the students and ask, "Who's took Algebra last year?" Take the first 20 (okay, 30) student who raise their hand, lead them to math class. "Who's in 9th Grade and hasn't had English yet?" Lead another group away. "Who took chemistry....? Biology...?" I know, it would never be that easy, but I still have some idealistic vision that a group of adults could really teach something; after all, the teachers are just as much victims of this as the students.

    Also, keep in mind, this is Prince George's County -- a jurisdiction that in the 1970s capped property taxes at then-existing levels, and allowed only minimal increases since. Combine that with a high population of at-risk students, large pockets of poverty, serious struggles with drugs and crime in the community -- and you have a recipe for disaster. At some level, the people of Prince George's County get the educational system they pay for. And they are cheap, so the fact that they don't have the computer resources that they need is entirely par for the course (sadly).
  • by eln ( 21727 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @06:42PM (#29224315)
    I didn't mean to imply the teachers are to blame, although I can see how my post could have been interpreted that way. The administrators should be the ones primarily responsible for auditing the schedules, not the teachers. And believe me, I sympathize with the fact that school personnel are constantly asked to do more with fewer resources. That's the big reason I elected not to go into teaching. My mother and older brother are both teachers, and I just don't want to deal with the aggravation they have to deal with on a daily basis.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @06:46PM (#29224349) Journal
    In fact, while public school teachers are typically not paid during the summer(whether this counts as "vacation" or "unemployment" depends on how much they are paid the rest of the year and/or who they've married); but it is pretty common to have at least a subset of admin and support staff on site year round. Some of it is just salary padding fluff, I'm sure; but there is a lot of real work to do at a school over the summer.

    Schedules get made up(well, usually), buildings get cleaned and repaired, IT projects that would be too disruptive for the year(or take too much of the IT staff's time when they also have to deal with user support) get done, pallets of textbooks, paper, lightbulbs, etc. get moved about.

    I'm not too surprised by this story, really. You see errors at least as flagrant in much higher profile corporate and government projects, so it isn't like IT deployments crashing and burning is all that uncommon, even among people with deep pockets who should know better. In a school, you've probably got a more or less bare bones staff of IT, who spend most of their time doing basic support, working with some horribly crufty abomidation from a vendor who deserves to die for their programming sins; but also has years of experience building software that caters to the specific needs of school systems(Sure, anybody, right down to that 15 year old who just discovered LAMP and sourceforge, could build a better frontend, and better DB backends are given away in the backs of "learn linux for morons in 10 minutes" books; but software that promises to automatically send out report card notifications to parents in a manner that correctly navigates the laws for information disclosure/nondisclosure when you have one or more divorced/separated/custodial/noncustodial/court-appointed-guardian/whatever parents in the picture? Not so common). It's more or less a matter of time before something bad happens.
  • by Airline_Sickness_Bag ( 111686 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @07:07PM (#29224615)

    Both of my kids are in Prince Georges County public schools. They are both in the science and technology magnet program at Eleanor Roosevelt HS. Two years ago, they used mygradebook.com for teachers to use, and it was a breeze to check on grades, see what assignments were due (and what assignments were missing), etc. It was an easy sytem to use, and worked well. Last year ERHS was forced to use the SchoolMax system. It was a disaster. So I'm not surprised that the problem was caused by the SchoolMax software.

  • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @07:22PM (#29224789)

    A pair of entrepreneurs were giving a talk at my university about their successes and failures in the start-up phase of their company.

    They had been spending about 18 months straight building a class scheduling program, and had gotten it to work, but they felt their four day run time was way too long to market, and couldn't figure out how to improve the speed and were about to give up. They were using an old version of the university's students, teachers, student's course wishes and rooms.

    At a party at the university one of them was talking to someone from the school's administration and after a couple of drinks they got to talking about the work he was doing, and he mentioned the 36 hour run time, which made the administration guy look quite surprised, as they were used to having a two week run time on their current system, which they were happy with, as it was one of the fastest on the market.

    Now, this anecdote was somewhat old at the time, but his point was "a product may seem worthless to you as an outsider of the industry, but that doesn't mean it isn't better than what's available". My point is that these type of scheduling takes a long time to complete

  • by Malkin ( 133793 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @07:27PM (#29224857)

    Heh, you don't have to tell me. I grew up in Upper Marlboro, and did all my schooling in the PG County School System. Back when I was in middle and high school (in another decade), it was fairly routine for me to have to sort out some kind of heinous scheduling snafu at the beginning of each year. Given that I was out at the edge of the area covered by my high school, bizarre bus schedule errors were almost guaranteed, as well.

    The most spectacular goof-up while I was there was the time they refused to close schools one morning, when a blizzard was rolling in. After freezing to death at the bus stop, waiting for our late bus, we had a grueling trip through white-out conditions to the school. The Beltway looked like some kind of post-apocalyptic nuclear survival horror movie, littered with snow-covered jack-knifed tractor trailers and wrecked cars. By the time we finally reached the school building, we were told that school was canceled. However, we could not simply turn around and go home. Oh no. Instead, the bus was obligated to go back to the first school on its evening routes, to pick them up and take them home, first. We were the last school on the evening routes. So, needless to say, the bus didn't even show up to take us home until stupid-o-clock at night, when we should have been going to bed.

  • by Eil ( 82413 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @07:41PM (#29224981) Homepage Journal

    I understand that there might be some concern with unleashing all these teenagers on the unsuspecting public

    1. A LOT of parents treat school like a babysitting service and couldn't stand the thought of their precious little snowflake sitting around at home unsupervised. Something tells me there would be more than a few angry parents (and probably some lawsuits, unfortunately) if the students were sent back home without advance notice.

    2. A LOT of public school administrators treat school like a prison and would much rather see thousands of students sitting around all day on a gymnasium floor than release them back to their comfortable homes while the administrators slaved away at fixing the scheduling problems. Also, sending them home would be like admitting there was a real mistake whereas making the students sit around idle is just a temporary setback.

    I swear to FSM, my daughter will never see the inside walls of a public school.

  • You're wrong. I taught for five years, so let me set the record straight:
    Most teachers have their salary spread over the entire year. The first two years I taught, I got a check every 2 weeks, whether or not school was in session. The last three years, they dumped a lump-sum into my bank account at the end of June. Still, this doesn't make a lick of difference. The teachers don't make the schedule - that's the duty of the administration, who IS paid all year. Generally, they sign a 220-250 day contract, which means they work through most of the summer.
    Once upon a time, when I was a new teacher, we got a new principal and a new head of guidance. They were tasked with scheduling classes for the school over the summer. Because they were new, the district shelled out something like $10k to send them to a 3 day training session put on by the maker of the scheduling software the district had purchased.
    They packed their bags, and flew out to the resort where this was happening. They attended the first day of the training, and it was very easy stuff. Stuff they already knew. So they blew the other two days off, and had themselves a nice vacation.
    Fast-forward to the end of the summer, and the principal had deleted two weeks of work on the schedule by accident, the classes were all fucked up, and nothing was working. On the first day of school, there were all sorts of issues, and it took a week or two to hammer it all out.
    And by "hammer it all out", I mean, "Schedule Calculus and Physics at the same time, so students have to choose. Schedule AP English and AP History at the same time, so students have to choose. Schedule chemistry classes and labs a period apart, so the teacher is forced to break instruction into tiny bits, and rush through minimal labs."
    For three years, my school went through a nightmare of scheduling. When they got rid of the horrifically incompetent administrators, it got much better.
    How much do you want to bet that the administrators in charge of scheduling this district went on a vacation instead of a training session for the software?

  • by ShakaUVM ( 157947 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @08:51PM (#29225643) Homepage Journal

    If you have six classes of Math students, then you need six Math classes and you need to find the teachers for them. If a teacher dies/whatever, you still have six classes of Math students. Yes, the administration may have to scramble to find a replacement teacher, but that doesn't affect the scheduling of classes: substitute new Math teacher in place of dead Math teacher.
    >>My point is that these type of scheduling takes a long time to complete

    The problem is a lot harder than most people think.

    The issue isn't 180 kids wanting to take math. It's 180 kids that are taking wildly different class loads, but are all at the same level of math, and so need to be grouped together somehow into 6 classes, assigned only to teachers which are qualified to teach that class, but not teaching another class during the same time period.

    If we ran our schools Japanese-style, with everyone taking the same classes together, the solution is simple: rotate your teachers through each of the classes - the kids stay in one class, but the teachers circulate.

    But our college entrance requirements are so strict now, optional classes are now absolute constraints on the problem. Student A MUST have Precalculus, Sophomore English, American History, Science 3-4, and French 3-4, and wants to take Journalism 3-4 during period 4 during 2/3rds of the year and Volleyball during period 6 at the end of the year. Whereas student B needs chemistry, Sophomore English, French 3-4 (which only has enough students for one class, so they must all be scheduled together), AP US History, etc. This is combined with constraints put on the system by individual teachers (teacher C is a teacher on special assignment, and so can only work periods 1-3, teacher D is our only journalism teacher, and can only teach the newspaper class in Period 4).

    If I recall correctly, the scheduling problem (or at least some variants of it) is NP-complete.

  • by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @10:01PM (#29226145) Journal

    The only way you got trolled is if you were troling yourself and I took the bait. I didn't see it that way but you complained about the mere facts and I pointed to how loosely you were using them yourself.

    The old system was replaced because it wasn't serving their needs. The new system isn't either but they are 4.1 million into it. There are end of life counselors in the obamacare plans and he has stated publicly that sometimes people should not get the most advanced treatment on a whim of a chance and except their live is over. I believe his exact quote is "Maybe you're better off, uhh, not having the surgery, but, uhh, taking the painkiller." [wordpress.com]

    Now I couldn't find a readily availible transcript without Rush Limbaugh's comments mixed in. But you can listen to the audio itself, he said this woman's 105 year old mother should have taken the pain pill instead of the pace maker at age 100 instead of living 4 or 5 more years and counting. And as painful as it may be to hear the truth, the truth is never a troll.

  • by arminw ( 717974 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @10:09PM (#29226187)

    ... the scheduling was fine until they replaced...

    a pencil and paper system that worked fine for maybe close to 100 years, with a modern bug infested computer system. In the 1950s a 3500+ student high school was run by a fraction of the number of employees that it takes today. That was back in the day of typewriters, pencils, paper and basic skills teaching.

  • by Dare nMc ( 468959 ) on Thursday August 27, 2009 @11:26PM (#29226685)

    for parents to have the option of a voucher for the per-student cost. That works out well for everyone, so you'll never see it in action.

    Doesn't work for me, I want nothing to do with tax dollars being used to teach completely made up crap [wikipedia.org] as useful, or out right scamming [wikipedia.org], just because they were able to brainwash enough people. I have seen what happened to some native Americans, they get some corrupt leaders who seam to want to keep a large group of stupid people in poverty, and under educated so they can't become part of productive society, then con the federal government in continuing to give them money to correct the injustice and "educate them".

  • by twostix ( 1277166 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:38AM (#29227013)

    My step son does (goes to public school) he's eight years old in third grade and goes to school to play fun exciting games and get stickers for writing one broken sentence and then comes home in the afternoon to learn.

    His mother and I have butted head *numerous* times with his teacher, counselors (counselors in primary school...why?) and principle a few times about the fact that he and half is class are functionally illiterate and the school doesn't seem to be in the least bit concerned about it. This is after we pulled him out of another public school because of the same problem. That is no interest in teaching children to read, write and do maths. It's *all* "social" and not even what I would call "social" as some of the things they learn are decidedly anti-social.

    Apparently social skills and self-esteem building are more important than the fact that he can't read books that me and his mother could read in first grade. We do our best with him but given that we only have him for two hours a night and are already considered "overly strict" and "pressure" parents by his school for trying to teach him ourselves (reading, writing and maths) for a few hours on afternoons and weekends there's not much else we can do as long as he's in that system.

    He'll be out of the public system at the end of this year though. After spending his summer holidays with a tutor he'll be going straight into a private school to repeat the third grade.

    So I'm with you my own children (18 months and six months) will *never ever* see the inside walls of a public school building. As it is I'm already responsible for one damaged child because of the mistake of trusting the state school system.

    I weep for this generation of public school children - the first in some larger untested social experiment.

  • by Atario ( 673917 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:36AM (#29227359) Homepage

    as the American Left is so fond of reminding the Internet, California is the third largest economy in the world

    Well, seventh, but don't let real numbers stop you (why start now?): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_between_U.S._states_and_countries_nominal_GDP#2008 [wikipedia.org]

    so why is it that the "liberal" state of California can't provide their own state run healthcare to their own citizens?

    1. As you so unintentionally point out with your scare quotes, California's conservative policies include such idiocy as Prop 13 and the two-thirds supermajority requirement for approval of taxes or a yearly budget. Hand-tying obstructionist crap like this regularly screws us over, thanks very much to asinine Republicans.
    2. Perhaps it has something also to do with the fact that for each dollar we pay out to the red states, we get back only 79 cents. http://www.taxfoundation.org/blog/show/1397.html [taxfoundation.org]
  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:45AM (#29227405) Homepage

    Yes, the school district paid for the program. They paid a shitton for what should be a very simple program: manage schedules, 'notes' on discipline, and grades (which are directly related to the schedules for under 10k students. This should be, what, 4 database tables?

    They are, essentially, paying over $512 per student for this software. (Hopefully this is not a reoccurring cost and comes with at least several years of free upgrades - so that, you know, it'll work). That's a crazy amount of money for any record-keeping software, and there is no possible way such a cost could be justified by a private institution. But instead of real, actual oversight, the public school system gets gobs of money per student.

    Chances are, the school system will hide this colossal loss and dig the 20-year-old terminals and terminal servers from the janitorial closet, pretending they never made the purchase. They'll just go back to doing what they did for the past 20 years: claiming budgeting deficits, charging students for minor damage to books, and giving the school's sports programs millions each year.

    I went to a very nice private school where the per-student annual operational cost was a fraction (about 1/3, after including federal, state, and local monies) of what the local school spent on each student per semester. The private school's computer labs were roughly as good as the local public school's labs (though nowhere near as excessive); the private school built an $8 million new building the year after I left (after the old building got washed away in a flood the year prior), classes were smaller, and the private school had higher GPAs/better standardized test scores. Part of that last bit is due to the whole "affluence" thing, but the rest can't be looked at in such a fashion: the public schools waste money on stupid, trivial things which have nothing to do with education.

    Government schools throw money down the drain for trivial, useless, and untested things simply because they can. (The public school district put in half a dozen labs my freshman year; there was roughly one computer for every 4 students, and no more than one was ever open at any one time.)

    As for government healthcare... you can bet that it'll be run to a large degree by the federal government - probably much in the same fashion as the Veteran Hospitals are (ie poorly). The rest will be outsourced to (wait for it) the private sector. This is just like every other government function: the private sector does the actual work while a massive government "oversight" committee/organization reviews everything for compliance (resulting in a much, much higher cost to the government due to private sector contracting).

    There's a reason why government has traditionally moved slower than the need requires (and moreso the larger the government): they make a lot of goddamn paperwork, and it takes time to shuffle it. Yes, that's simplified, but it's also not far off the mark.

  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:43AM (#29227673) Homepage

    Dude, seriously. I feel your pain - as one of those kids who jumped from school to school because they were too dumb and I was bored. My parents were quite worried that I had not really started reading (I could read, just didn't) until 3rd grade.

    I was in a total of 9 school districts (3 private schools inclusive) throughout K-12 - and I was homeschooled for the majority of middle school years (6th through 9th grades). This isn't in one region, it's in half a dozen different towns in 3 different states 500+ miles from each other.

    Take the kid out of school and "home school" him. If you have to, give him books and lock him in a room and tell him to "entertain himself". He will still learn more, because his mind will be engaged (if, for no other reason, because he's got nothing else to do).

    If you have to, ferret him into work in a 4U server box and stick him in the corner - then ask him what he learned "at school" on the car trip home. Chances are, he'll learn more in a day which will stick with him than he does in a whole week of school.

    I say those things somewhat tongue in cheek, but seriously: there are very few good schools out there, regardless of money or location, public or private. If your kids are even moderately intelligent/above average (as I am - not uber-intelligent but certainly brighter than average, no small part due to my upbringing) they will be bored and unchallenged.

    Like you, my children will not see the inside of a public school building (and, most likely, not the inside of a private one, either). I will "shoot it out" with CPS/whatever agents before they're sent away like that. I love them too much.

    My son is currently 5; due to new early-start laws, we've got to register him for school already. They (the federal government) is trying to take our kids from us at an earlier and earlier age. I went to kindergarten in NY at the age of 7; I was a year oler than most of my classmates due to when my birthday fell in the year, but at the same time, it was required at 6. Now it's 5. When my mom was a kid (at the same kindergarten), kindergarten was not even required.

    As far as education of children at home: as I said, my son is 5. I have made no 'concerted' effort in teaching him anything except what he is interested in. If he asks a question, I guide him in finding the answer for himself or I answer it. He knows the alphabet, can almost count (and write) to 20 (and after you're past the "teens", it's easy-peezy), and knows more about the natural world than most high schoolers. He plays with legos, draw, and plays with his sister for most of the day.

    Most importantly, though: he is using his brain, and he is not behind his peers by any stretch of the imagination. He is interacting with adults (I work from home, as does my wife) on a daily basis, is learning proper adult etiquette, and is one step closer (than he was and than others his age) to becoming half of what childhood is about: an adult.

    The other half is about playing and having fun. And even that "fun" stuff has lessons for adulthood: skinning your knee, falling from a tree, or getting sprayed by a skunk all have life lessons you are likely to not forget.

    (Sorry for the rambling nature; Friday started a day early for me this week.)

  • by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @08:52AM (#29229463) Journal

    >>>we know how terribly private industry fails at increasing the common good

    Do they? The electric and phone companies are privately-owned, and yet they appear to do a wonderful job. Ditto Intel. The machine I'm typing is about 12,000 times faster than my first computer, and look how that has transformed people's lives (on-demand music, videos, et cetera). Grocery stores bring voluminous supplies of food, and in dizzying varieties, within just a few miles of your home. (Compare tha to the Soviet Union's government-run stores which often had empty shelves.)

    Private industry has done a wonderful job providing the things we need. Why? Because if they don't, they go out-of-business. There's no greater motivator than the loss of one's job.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:21AM (#29229783) Homepage Journal

    "You get what you pay for" is a salesman's scam; a lie. You don't always get what you pay for, although you usually pay for what you get.

    When a salesman says "you get what you pay for", run like hell because you're going to be ripped off.

  • by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:28AM (#29229875) Journal

    You fell for Lincoln's 1863 speech, but in 1862 he said, "If banning slavery would save the union, I would do it. If keeping slavery would save the union, I would do it." He didn't care either way. The war was about one side wanting a strong central government with high protective tariffs, and the other side wanting a weak central government because they were being hurt by the tariffs (it's hard to sell cotton when your government is jacking-up the prices).

    It's somewhat akin to if the European Union announced, "We're taxing all wool at 50%," and the UK and Ireland and Iceland seceded because they were fed up, and then the EU attacked.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @09:48AM (#29230129)

    Doesn't change the fact that the school A) bought the software and B) did not notice that about 20% of their students were not scheduled.

    We're not talking 5 people (1 person out), we're talking 41,000 people. The GP's post is quite applicable when you start to extrapolate that data out to millions.

    Also, pointing the finger at a private company for developing the software is quite moot. In general, the government is likely to get the private sector to develop a lot of the software.

Information is the inverse of entropy.