DIY Accountability

Frustrated with city's data system, teachers build their own

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Created by teachers at the High School for Telecommunication, DataCation collects and analyzes student data, rivaling the city's own database.

When he began teaching at a Bronx high school, Jesse Olsen found the school had a large blind spot when it came to taking attendance.

If a student came to class for the first half of the school day and then skipped out, she’d go down in the official record as being present for the full day. The information holes made it impossible for teachers to know what their students’ true attendance was like, Olsen said.

A new, sophisticated database known as ARIS, for Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, might have been just the thing to solve the problem. But the system only let schools see how many days a student had missed, not how many classes they were skipping.

So Olsen took matters into his own hands, drawing on his computer science training to build an attendance system for his school, Validus Preparatory Academy.  In doing so he joined a growing number of teachers who don’t rely on the city’s data tools to track student information.

Brought into the city’s public schools in 2008 as a major initiative of Chancellor Joel Klein, ARIS cost $80 million to make. It debuted at the same time that Klein began to ask teachers to keep close track of student data and use it to adjust their instruction.

To do that, teachers would need more data. But even after recovering from some of its early glitches, ARIS continues to disappoint. Teachers complain that it offers them too little information and parents say it’s hard to access.

To meet the demand for data, some teachers and schools have created their own content management systems and are selling the products to other public schools.

Olsen’s program, called Impact, has an online attendance system that updates instantly and allows teachers to add comments on students’ behavior. Seeing that ARIS only includes students’ final course grades, he added an online gradebook that shows how students did on individual assignments, how well they’ve learned certain skills, and what work they still need to complete.

Impact is now in 21 New York City schools, which pay between $10 to $25 per student for a year of service. Teach for America recently began using it to track how some of its members’ students’ perform.

“I think when tools are made for districts, New York being the superlative example of a big district, they can only be so useful because they have to generalize,” Olsen said. “They have to make it work for the young and the old, the new and traditional.”

“What you emerge with is a tool that works for everybody but it barely does anything,” he said. “Schools should have a choice. The DOE should say here’s a number of recommended partners, we just need the data, you pick the tool that works in your way.”

Olsen’s suggestion comes at exactly the same time that the city is rethinking how schools use ARIS.

Deputy Chancellor for accountability Shael Suransky said the city will begin piloting a new version of the program called ARIS Local in some schools next spring. Teachers will be able to enter data on students’ progress on reading assessments and chapter tests that the current database doesn’t include.

“What we want in the long run is for ARIS to be a platform like the iPhone is a platform, where people can develop applications and they can draw the data from our central system and format it into easy to use ways,” he said. “ARIS is the first step on that path.”

On candidate for app creation might be DataCation, which emerged several years ago from teachers at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn. Created with a focus on the No Child Left Behind law’s requirements, the program allows schools to track students’ progress toward graduation, their schedules, and their grades.

The Telecommunication teachers sold DataCation to a company called CaseNEX, which also bought a scheduling program called Skedula that was developed by a former programmer at Herbert Lehman High School.

Last year, about 30 city schools purchased DataCation, a sleek program that lets schools do everything from scheduling classes and tracking credit accumulation to predicting their results on the federal government’s accountability system. The full suite can cost $8,500, but even in the midst of budget cuts, schools are finding ways to cover the expense.

Most DataCation clients are high schools, and many are struggling schools that the city or state could close if their graduation rates don’t rise. For them, being able to single out a group of low-performing students and focus on them is a matter of survival.

“It’s designed to really catch kids that are not identified using any other tools and to monitor their progress and make sure that info is available in a timely manner, not three semesters later,” said CaseNEX CEO Marsha Gartland. “It’s a pretty simple concept, but it can bring a whole new level of order to a school that’s been lacking it.”

One of DataCation’s most popular features allows parents to log in and see their children’s recent grades, attendance, and missing work. Parents can also do this on the ARIS website through the Parent Link, but there’s less information and it’s older.

In another case, a group of staff members at Leon Goldstein High School in Brooklyn formed the LMG Data Group to sell data management software to other schools. Their clients buy FileMaker, an Apple software product, and then the group sets up a customized data aggregation and display program based on what the school wants. This year, nine schools will use the software.

Goldstein Principal Joseph Zaza said the program began in 2006 as an experiment and a way for the school to know more about its students than the DOE’s software would permit.

‘We’ve done a lot more than just track student data,” Zaza said. “We use it to track student behavior. Deans put in behavioral problems and when a student doesn’t behave — doesn’t have a photo ID or is cutting class — then immediately the system emails that information to the guidance counselors and myself so that everybody is informed.”

The school also uses FileMaker to track how many hours of community service its students have done and the software has cut down on the number of lost books by linking students’ ID numbers to the books’ bar codes.

Schools are charged based on the complexity of their data demands, with one-time prices ranging from $5,000 to $40,000.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.