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:

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.