First Person

Voices: Election signals trump noise

Alexander Ooms argues noise – rather than rigorous analysis – was given too much attention this election season by the media and elected officials. Cross-posted on Ooms With a View.

In my opinion, the biggest unheralded winner in Tuesday’s election was Thomas Bayes. Now Bayes died back in 1761, but his influence lives on in Bayes’ Theorem, which is one of the tent poles of modern statistics and probability. His modern incarnation is Nate Silver, proprietor of the 538 blog, which devised an aggregated polling and economic model to predict elections, and called 49 of 50 states correctly four years ago. Silver’s statistical approach has drawn many detractors, but to paraphrase MLK, the numeric arc of elections is long but it bends toward probability theory.

Raven Wright, a freshman at Denver’s High Tech Early College, describes her school at a press conference celebrating its academic gains in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo. The school is part of recent reform efforts in Far Northeast Denver.

For the last few weeks, the noise around the election became louder and louder; at the same time, the signal on 538 became more and more clear. The long march of history is that data and signal triumph over noise, and by the early hours of the evening, it got pretty quiet. Silver pretty much nailed this one too.

There are few specific education items in this election worth much comment, but there is a lesson here and it is a simple one: Signal Beats Noise.  This is poignant for education, as many debates are still dominated by the noise of a vocal and shrill minority, a discordant clamor which captures the attention of far too many legislators. Education still, and almost uniquely among major topics, has fact and data buried by noise.

Denver 3A/3B prime examples

Nowhere was this more evident than in the false ballyhoo around 3A and 3B. Denver has a long and consistent history of supporting similar measures, and there was never any indication that the basic signal had changed. There was a discordant noise – formed by the asynchronous demographics of both anti-tax tea party Republicans and a sliver of the status quo Democratic base, and amplified by media. Loud and shrill, these voices were given far too much attention: their claims rarely passed any analytical review, and if anything, treating them as serious opponents gave them a credibility that they should have lacked. Any doubt about the ability of opponents to generate support might have been quickly discredited when campaign finance reports showed their impact, as the No on 3B campaign finished with all of $1,890 in contributions. This was noise.

But realize as well that any claims of credit for the victory on 3A and 3B by the politicians who supported them is likely an indication that the rest of their education agenda is strikingly shallow, and is roughly akin to celebrating the sun’s rise this morning over the eastern horizon. There should be little pride in beating back something that was never a threat. Delivering a bond and mill in Denver is simply not much of an accomplishment.

But the Denver school board has, in the past year, shown a proclivity to pay an overt amount of attention to noise instead of increasingly clear data about which schools and policies are having an impact. There are lots of education issues where ignoring the noise and focusing on the signal will be critical, including some that will need attention in the coming months. And if there is one thing increasingly clear about DPS and the Denver school board, it is that both sides now celebrate noise far more than they acknowledge signal.

There was not too much more of interest for education wonks. Bond measures across the Front Range did very well – this unanimity comes as somewhat of a surprise given the failure last year of Proposition 103. But Prop 103 was amorphous and unstructured, dollars thrown into a dark hole while bonds issues, by their nature, are specific to the point of dullness. So the hypothesis that can sit in the intersection of both defeat and victory – that voters will support additional dollars for education as long as they believe in what these dollars will buy – may still hold true.

Individual results were largely predictable. While it was no surprise, I was glad to see Brandon Shaffer soundly defeated, even though I am no fan of his opponent.  Shaffer’s consistent opposition to sensible education legislation – culminating in a cowardly move to send last year’s well-supported and bipartisan literacy bill to a kill committee – has been a prime example of noise over signal for years.  I doubt many tears hit the floor when his results came in.

One of the closest races of the night was Evie Hudak in the State Senate. A former member of the Colorado Board of Education, Hudak has usually taken fairly traditional stances on most issues, such as her opposition to SB-191, the bill that changed teacher evaluation. However, even Hudak has shown some flexibility recently, and she voted to support the early literacy bill last year.

If there is an unrecognized bright spot in the election for education reform, it may be the ascendency of Mark Ferrandino to speaker of the Colorado House. Ferrandino is the son of schoolteachers, and an ardent believer that our education systems need change. He has supported much of the legislation at the heart of education reform, and he will ensure that issues are debated on their merits. I don’t agree with him on everything, but his positions are well-considered – they are signal, not noise – I deeply respect his views, and think he will make Colorado proud.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.