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:

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”