When Highlands Community Charter School recently was looking to switch to a new SIS, we ultimately chose PowerSchool, and for the past month, I’ve been working intensely to migrate from our previous system (School Pathways) to PowerSchool. Overall this process has been smooth, but it has also highlighted to me some clear problems that PowerSchool has, and why one shouldn’t only choose a product because it has the most market share.
Of all the SISes I’ve looked at over time, I believe PowerSchool has the best user interface, and between this, and its great ability to integrate with other software, is why it has the largest market share in the United States. The web interface is responsive, so it can work on tablets and smartphones as well as desktops, and they even have their own apps for tablets and smartphones, if one doesn’t want to use their web interface. We have been told that PowerSchool has attempted to make every feature available within 3 clicks, and from my experience so far, it seems they have done a good job at this.
The only thing that annoys me, is that there are far too many times when I click the back button, and I get an error message. And this isn’t only with the web browser’s back button, they will often have a back button on their web page, and when I click it, sometimes it works, and sometimes I get an error. This hasn’t seemed to ever have caused any real problems, but is annoying and is something that really should be fixed.
PowerSchool has most of the standard features of most modern SISes. But there are some things that it really doesn’t handle well, including having schools with multiple campuses (but who do reporting as a single school), and having class schedules that are not rigidly structured into periods. This isn’t usually a problem for most traditional K-12 schools, but it is an issue we have had to deal with as being an adult-serving charter school that serves a wide geographic region under a single charter school, but having multiple campuses. I would suspect many colleges and postsecondary institutions would have similar types of problems with PowerSchool as we have. PowerSchool also doesn’t have the workflow feature that comes with Aspen.
BUT, one of the great things about PowerSchool, is that if it doesn’t have the feature, you can probably find a partner that has made a plug-in to do it, or you can build it yourself with their extended fields, tables, and custom web interfaces. This is why we chose PowerSchool, despite knowing that their system wouldn’t fit our school perfectly.
Customer Service & Technical Support
Overall, our school has had good experience with the customer and technical support of PowerSchool. Everyone we have talked with has had a very positive attitude and sincerely do their best to help. There have been a few folks who really didn’t know enough to be able to help us out well, but when we asked to get new support people who knew the system better, we didn’t have to fight to get the better support. And honestly, most standard schools wouldn’t have the type of in-depth custom questions that our school has.
Database Structure, Programming, and Underlying Technology
The biggest failing of PowerSchool, in my opinion, is that it has far too many fields that only allow 10 or 20 characters. And while I should have probably noticed this, because they have a good data dictionary, it was something that I just didn’t even really look at, because one should expect any modern database to not force its users to make up ill-formed abbreviated words to get them to fit into a field. With them having 10 major iterations of their product, and with it not generally being difficult to upgrade the database structure to allow larger field sizes, this really is something that I have some buyer’s remorse over.
PowerSchool also doesn’t have a very robust database structure, and often does not follow standard database practices. This is one of the biggest issues I have with the product, as it makes it much more challenging to extract and analyze data through doing queries, as often the queries need to be written in non-standard ways. This is my biggest frustration with the product.
But, one positive about PowerSchool is that they are the only SIS that I know of that uses Oracle as their underlying database system. And Oracle is a very robust and strong database system.
Integration, Customization, and Reporting
PowerSchool’s strongest virtue is its ability to integrate with other software. PowerSchool has an API that is actively developed and supported, including having their own yearly developer’s conference. Combining this, with the fact that they have the most market share in the U.S., this means that they have a lot of partners who have already created plug-ins for their system, and if you don’t like something, you can make something yourself. This is even more the case because they have extended fields, and extended tables, so you can add pretty much anything you want to the inside of the system. They also have ODBC and JDBC which makes traditional integration with other applications (such as Excel or MS Access), much easier.
Security & Reliability
From searches of Google News, I found more people who have hacked PowerSchool systems than any others. But this may simply be due to the fact that PowerSchool has greater market share, so for any particular hacking, it will more likely be that the school is using PowerSchool. PowerSchool also got a lot of negative press for how their product was rolled out in North Carolina. Although, to be fair, this was while PowerSchool was still owned by Pearson, and Pearson has had other issues with school districts not thinking they did their part of the bargain (for example with Los Angeles Unified School district). But, when I asked our PowerSchool sales rep about this problem, she never responded. This is compared to Aspen, when I asked them about one smaller issue that was in the news, they responded right away, and clearly showed that have improved their system and organization.
PowerSchool is neck and neck with Aspen as being the best SIS product. But, both have some fairly significant failings, where it is hard to say which one is better. In the end our school chose to go with PowerSchool because we knew that no matter which SIS we chose, we would need to do a lot of customization, and PowerSchool is the best at doing customization and integration. And it does have a slightly better user interface than Aspen.
PowerSchool can also support small schools as well as large school systems, while Aspen really only is viable for large systems / districts. So for small standard schools or larger schools who need a lot of customization, PowerSchool should be an option you seriously consider. Hopefully they will soon address the small field size problem, as this really is not acceptable of a product that is now on its 10th version!