Companies across the globe are transforming supply chains with technology. This so-called “digitalization” increases transparency, allowing each step of the chain to match supply and demand. Those that do it best are thought to be able to achieve big gains in customer service, flexibility, efficiency, and cost reduction.[i]
The discussion of supply chain digitalization to date has focused largely on the private sector. But can these strategies be used in other fields? Say, in U.S. K-12 public education?
One city is looking to find out.
The City of Boston is reportedly considering Unified Enrollment, a system that would apply a core aspect of digital supply chain—logistics visibility— to its public-school enrollment system.[ii]
Public education’s supply chain
First, what is a supply chain in the public education context anyways?
Yes, schools do not fit our traditional definition of a supply chain. But the movement of students through the public education system can in many ways be thought of as a 12+ year value-chain.
At the start, new students enter the system. Those students progress through various grades and schools, receiving additional educational investment at each point. By the end, the collective work of the school system should have prepared those students for distribution to the “end-consumer”: colleges or employers.
Historically, the public education “supply chain” in Boston was quite simple. A student would enroll in the local neighborhood elementary-school, which would feed into a specific middle-school and then in turn to a specific high-school. This process provided predictability for the students, parents, and for schools.
Concerns in the Chain
In recent years, the addition of public charter schools in Boston has challenged this predictability.
What’s the problem? Well, because students can now enroll in local district schools and apply to city-wide charter schools, it is very difficult to predict where that student might end up. To add to the confusion, each charter school has an independent lottery[iii] process that does not speak to the public district nor other charter schools.
Rahn Dorsey, the mayor’s chief of education, explains: “I can get a [Boston school district] assignment, and I can also go to charter schools separately and be assigned to multiple schools … there could be one family holding five seats. And those schools that were planning for you to come have already been spending money, they’ve already held that seat for you.”[iv]
Schools no longer have the visibility to accurately predict how many students they will need to serve each year.
Estimate too low? Schools will be unprepared to serve the incoming students. Estimate too high? Schools will operate at a lower utilization and will be locked into spending more than they need to be.
Put another way, supply chain visibility has dramatically decreased, sacrificing efficiency and cost as a result.
Unified Enrollment: A digital supply chain solution
Unified Enrollment presents a simple yet brilliant solution to the visibility challenge faced by Boston schools.
The new policy would combine all district and charter enrollment processes into one digital system. First, students would rank their school choices. Second, would schools set the number of seats they have available by grade and program. Finally, the system would process the information and allocate students to one available seat based on their preferences and their lottery number.[iv]
No students holding extra seats. No lag-time. No information gaps. No misallocation of school resources.
Unified enrollment provides visibility, giving schools the opportunity to match their capacity and resources to the number and types of students they expect for the next school year.
Timeline for improvements
Change in public education is never quick.
In the short term, Bostonians have and will likely continue to question the merits of the Unified Enrollment policy. Despite the operational benefits,[v] political disputes have slowed progress of the discussion. However, if the policy is approved in the next few years, the city could move to building and implementing the digital system.
From my perspective, Unified Enrollment should have been implemented long ago. Every year it delays, the community wastes tax dollars. Furthermore, it continues unnecessary complexity for families and schools.
So often, learnings are siloed to a single industry, yet the potential for cross-industry learnings is vast.
Unified Enrollment only scratches the surface of potential supply chain improvements for Boston’s schools. Could Boston use a digitalized supply chain system to assist with smarter procurement of classroom tools, food, or facilities supplies for schools? Or use historical data to better forecast enrollment patterns? Or better track the transportation of students on school busses?
What additional opportunities do you see, related to digitalization or otherwise, for a public-school district to improve its supply chain? Are there other public-sector organizations that could benefit from these types of improvements?
[i] Schrauf, S. and P. Berttram, Industry 4.0: How Digitization Makes the Supply Chain More Efficient, Agile, and Customer Focused, PWC Strategy& (2016)
[ii] Fox, J. (2015). Proposal would offer one-stop enrollment for Boston’s district, charter schools – The Boston Globe. [online] BostonGlobe.com. Available at: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/09/16/proposal-would-offer-one-stop-enrollment-for-boston-district-charter-schools/cDP45w3fnLjXBgdK0qtViO/story.html [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].
[iii] Charter schools are not permitted to selectively admit students. Rather, they run a lottery process to allocate the available seats per grade.
[iv] Prothero, A. (2016). In Districts With Lots of Choice, Simplifying Enrollment Is Not So Easy. [online] Education Week. Available at: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/02/17/in-districts-with-lots-of-choice-simplifying.html [Accessed 11 Nov. 2017].
[v] Implementation of similar systems in Denver and New Orleans have demonstrated numerous benefits, albeit some implementation challenges. Gross, B., DeArmond, M. and Denice, P. (2015). Common Enrollment, Parents, and School Choice: Early Evidence from Denver and New Orleans | Center on Reinventing Public Education. [online] Crpe.org. Available at: https://www.crpe.org/publications/common-enrollment-parents-and-school-choice-early-evidence-denver-and-new-orleans.