New York

A tour of schools data around the country – California (LA), Denver, Houston

In reflecting on transparency in government, I thought I’d take a look around the country at a few other urban school districts to see how they make data available to the public. Are there school districts out there that are models for all in terms of making data accessible?

Today, LA, Denver, and Houston. Tomorrow, DC, Chicago, and Baltimore. If there are other cities you think I should look at, leave a comment. Next week, we’ll see what users in each of these cities have to say about the availability of data – if you’re from one of the featured cities and can provide perspective, please email me. Also, what tools would be most helpful to you as someone interested in education?

In exploring each site, I looked to see what information is available, in what format, how quickly I found it, and whether special tools were available to help me navigate the data and answer my own questions. Please keep in mind that since I’m not from these other cities, I’m a “naive user” of these sites, perhaps similar to a parent or community member interested in but not expert at finding what’s out there. If I’ve missed anything on any of the sites I visited, let me know so I can update this.

Screenshot of California's STAR system
Screenshot of California's STAR system

Starting out west, I spent a few minutes at the LA Unified School District homepage, which relatively quickly led me to the California Department of Education’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) system, a tool that allows you to search at different levels (county, district, school), by subgroup, and view or download tables of information. Both mean scale scores and the percentage of students at each proficiency level are reported. What’s problematic is that to compare subgroups or years, you have to create separate reports for each category you want to compare (e.g., first request 2006 data, then request 2007 data, then compare on your own); the tool would be immensely more powerful if it allowed you to select two or more subgroups or years for comparison. Summary tables comparing different subgroups and different years are available with the 2007 press release, but only for some kinds of data (proficiency statistics are compared but not scale scores, for example).


Screenshot of Denver's survey tool
Screenshot of Denver's survey tool

Also of interest in LA is a site that lets the public search – by zip code, project number, or using an interactive map – for fact sheets on new school construction and maintenance of existing buildings. Finally, LA provides a search tool for crime statistics for the last several years by school, although unfortunately you can only search one school at a time, which makes comparisons difficult.

From California, I crossed the Rockies to Denver, a much smaller district but home to a merit pay experiment that has captured the nation’s attention. Denver provides a tool for finding reports from school satisfaction surveys, which allows you to pull up information at the school or district level and sorted by subgroups, but like California’s STAR system, to create comparison tables, each subgroup must be pulled up one at a time, then integrated on your own.

School performance data in Denver seems to be all in the form of PDF files, with search functions available only to school and district employees. The state of Colorado provides test score summaries and disaggregated data in both PDF and Excel formats.

From Colorado, southeast to Houston, where the “Texas Miracle” occurred and then was cast into doubt. Houston’s Department of Research and Accountability includes lots of PDF files presenting information about student TAKS scores, but no tools for navigating the data on one’s own. The Texas Education Association provides statewide summaries and other information as PDF files.

Screenshot of Houston's Department of Research and Accountability.
Screenshot of Houston's Department of Research and Accountability.

That’s it for today – I encourage you to visit these sites, get a sense of what you like and don’t like, and leave comments below.  Tomorrow, I head east…

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.