big data

Into crowded field of school data comes a user-friendly report

Insideschools introduced its new school data tool, "Inside Stats" at a panel discussion on school assessment.

When Jacqueline Wayans helped her second daughter pick a high school, they were confident about their choice.

After all, Wayans is a savvy parent who had worked for years visiting and reviewing schools for Insideschools, the online guide to city schools. Her older daughter had attended a city school with an arts theme and gotten a good education, and her younger daughter’s top pick, Manhattan’s High School for Fashion Industries, had gotten an “A” from the Department of Education.

It wasn’t until after her daughter enrolled that Wayans learned Fashion Industries only offered three years of math classes. And when the school added a fourth math class, she didn’t find out until it was too late that her daughter’s scores were too low for her to qualify. Now, when Wayans’s daughter starts college this fall, she’ll need to take remedial math.

“I just assumed that there was a four-year sequence,” Wayans said today during a panel discussion about metrics for assessing high schools that Insideschools hosted. “My older daughter had it at her high school and I just thought it was there.”

Wayans isn’t alone in trusting a small sliver of information to make the potentially life-changing decision about where to attend high school. Some parents and students choose schools by their names, their sports teams, or their neighborhoods, without digging deep to understand what kind of education the schools offer.

Now entering its second decade, Insideschools (where I also worked from 2005 to 2008) is preparing to launch a tool to help parents like Wayans — and those far less savvy than she is — make better choices. The tool, called “Inside Stats,” is a consumer-oriented presentation of public data about high schools that is meant to complement, or perhaps even rival, the information the city distributes.

The annual high schools directory, issued this week to next year’s eighth-graders, is based largely on schools’ self-reporting. And the progress reports that award schools their annual letter grade are rich in data but difficult for parents to decipher, said Clara Hemphill, Insideschools’ founder and the panel’s moderator.

And neither document signals whether schools are safe or how it feels to be students in them. That’s what parents and students most want to know, said Wayans, who conducted focus groups of families as part of the Inside Stats development process.

So this fall, when Inside Stats goes live on each school’s Insideschools online page, visitors to the site will be able to see whether each school requires a uniform, lets students go out for lunch, gives students access to lockers, and makes them pass through metal detectors to enter each day. They will also see the question “Do students like this school?”, followed by an answer based on results of the Department of Education’s annual survey.

Other information on the reports reflect the same data that the city’s progress reports include, such as graduation and college attendance rates. But the data will take a different form. Instead of seeing a complex representation of statistical “score bands,” Inside Stats readers will see a flowchart of the paths previous students have taken after enrolling. And instead of parsing the language of “peer groups,” the reports simply identify whether a school is “beating the odds” compared to other schools with similar students.

The reports also include some information not reflected on either city document, such as the graduation rate for students with disabilities and whether classes are getting bigger or smaller. Class size on its own might not indicate school quality, Hemphill said, but large classes mean teachers are less likely to assign rigorous work that is challenging to grade.

“We want to determine if this tool or something like it can help parents encourage and reward schools where teaching is deep,” said Andrew White, director of the New School research institute that hosts Insideschools, before the panel began.

The Department of Education is trying to shift parents’ attention to the quality of schools’ instruction by adding data about how many students meet college entrance standards to its progress reports, said Martin Kurzweil, the department’s accountability czar, who helped Insideschools wrangle data for the Inside Stats project. College-readiness metrics will factor into high schools’ letter grades for the first time this fall.

But getting parents and students to prioritize that information when choosing a high school could require a substantial change in culture.

“I don’t get that many questions about curriculum. I think there are a lot of assumptions. I don’t think [parents] realize how much curriculum is in the hands of individual teachers and individual principals,” said Miriam Nightengale, the principal of Columbia Secondary School. “If parents asked more questions around engagement in the classroom I think they would not be so surprised.”

More often, families are searching for something that’s hard to pin down in data when they tour schools, she said. They want to know whether the values their children would be exposed to at school match their values at home.

“I don’t know how to put that in a progress report, but I think parents are very attuned to that,” she said.

Nightengale said she had encountered parents who turned away from the school after noticing pregnant students or who had said that they “just like the LaGuardia side better,” referring to the selective arts school located across the street from the Martin Luther King Campus.

“Sometimes all those other considerations are completely secondary to ‘who is my child going to school with?'” she said.

Insideschools plans to continue to refine the Inside Stats reports over time. One suggestion Hemphill received today was from Bob Hughes, president of New Visions, which supports dozens of small high schools in the city. Hughes urged the Inside Stats to shed light on how schools support students who struggle.

“What’s the [Regents exam] passage rate for students on the second, or third or fourth time? Because that gives me a sense of how the school’s going to intervene,” he said.

And whatever gets measured is likely to influence principals’ behavior, just as some principals have responded to demands for proficiency by focusing on the students on the verge of becoming proficient, Kurzweil said.

“Everything you measure has some consequence and it’s really difficult to take that all into account while still offering up an evaluation that’s sensible and meaningful for the people you’re evaluating and the people you’re trying to share the evaluations with,” he said.

Hughes couched the problem in literary terms. “When I was a school finance attorney the joke was that school finance cases are like Tolstoy novels — big, brawling, lot of actors, and everyone’s dead in the end,” Hughes said. “I think school accountability questions are similar.”

A sample of one school’s Inside Stats report, distributed this morning, is below:

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 [email protected].

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.”