Digitalization in K-12 education: Will Boston pass the test?

How can supply chain digitalization help the public sector? One city is looking to find out. Boston is currently exploring Unified Enrollment, a system that would use digital supply chain solutions to transform the school enrollment system.

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.

Looking ahead

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] Available at: [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: [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] Available at:


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Student comments on Digitalization in K-12 education: Will Boston pass the test?

  1. This essay provides an interesting assessment of the public school system as a supply chain – students progress through various stages of the system and ultimately enter the job market as a product for future employers. Digitization of logistics can indeed help allocate students across the various options of public and charter schools so that demand will match supply.

    Another way that digitization can aid the public school system is by cutting back on physical supplies. Taking the example of Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, New York, which in 2013 began an initiative to mandate the use of digital textbooks in its classroom, we can see how digitization benefits both the school and parents. Typically, the school will be a supplier of textbooks to the parents, who previously were spending $700 a year on these textbooks [1]. Generally schools have to hold onto expensive books if parents decide to purchase a used copy online at a discount and parents make substantially purchases on items their children will only use for a year. Digitization creates savings for both parties, saves on limited resources (paper), and is more convenient for students who may not want to carry heavy textbooks all day.

    [1] No More Books: High School Goes All Digital. USA Today, 18 Sept. 2013,

  2. Thanks for sharing. This seems like an enormous problem and I’m glad BPS is working to fix it!

    The charter vs. public debate is interesting and I don’t know exactly where I come out on it… but this new system seems to give a big benefit to the public system by allowing it to select charter schools’ student populations. I think this is a step in the right direction. With the exception of special needs/special population charters, it seems like this system levels the playing field and prevents charters from ‘skimming’ good students to the detriment of the public system. However, it raises a lot of questions (many of them legal in nature) for me about the extent to which the public system can regulate the charter system.

    In response to your questions, I see an opportunity for this system – once implemented – to be used for additional equity-related policy objectives. For example, it could use additional inputs like income level, language ability, even test scores, to balance schools in ways reflective of the public’s priorities (e.g., avoid having schools filled with all low-achieving students, or match schools with specific competencies with student populations that would benefit the most from those competencies). Such a use could be pretty controversial but would provide policymakers a powerful tool to ensure the education system is as equitable as possible.

    Finally, a lot of what I’ve read recently about digital tech’s impact on education isn’t related to supply chain at all, it’s related to actual pedagogy and learning. Algorithm-based programs that provide individualized learning (i.e., computer programs that allow slower students to go at a slower pace while faster students can be more frequently challenged) have been piloted in schools though no single program seems to have gained wide appeal. Something to look out for in the future perhaps (

  3. Super interesting post!
    To me this solution sounds like a no brainer, I’m surprised it hasn’t been implemented earlier. I’m therefore curious to understand the arguments of the political opposition. Is it an issue of large upfront costs, versus benefits that are difficult to measure and quantify ? Are the schools unwilling to relinquish some of their decision-making to a “virtual black box”? Is it realistic to assume that parents and pupils’ preferences are static, and will the proposed solution provide adequate flexibility?
    Addressing the opposition’s concerns will hopefully allow for a faster adoption, and development of a superior solution!

  4. I really like the interesting article!

    As someone foreign to the US education system, I don’t quite get why the public schools have to estimate their enrolled students, like the airline, and reserve resourcing according to the forecast. It’s not an issue for US college right? How does public or charter high school system vary with university in terms of enrollment?

    The thing I come up with digitization in education is TOEFL. ETS transforms TOEFL to be internet-based, meaning all the reading, listening, speaking and written test are done on a computer with a digitalized supply chain of content distribution. It saves a lot of cost by eliminating the spend on printing and transporting the test papers worldwide, expatriating qualified speaking test officers from US to the rest of the world(IELTS still use this model now), scoring the test manually etc. In this way, it can also conduct data analysis to generate the insight into people taking the test and revamp its content and service accordingly in a convenient way.

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