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.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”