First Person

Data Are Good; More Data May Not Be Better

Nowadays, it seems like anybody with a fast server, some GIS software, and some links to federal and state education databases can put up a website comparing schools.  Among the latest entries to the school comparison derby is schooldigger.com, a service of Claarware LLC, billed as “The Web’s Easiest and Most Useful K-12 Search and Comparison Tool for Parents.”  Schooldigger’s title evokes the imagery of digging into the interior of schools to see what makes them tick.

 The rhetoric on schooldigger’s website is typical.  The site purports to rank schools within states from best to worst.  “Other sites charge over $20 a month for this service!” the site exclaims, but schooldigger does it for free.  For New York, the rankings are based on the sum of the average percent proficient in English and math across tested grades.  The rankings of schools are aggregated to enable cities and districts to be ranked as well.  Schools, cities and districts in the 90th to 100th percentiles of the distribution get five stars;  those in the 70th to 90th percentiles get four stars;  those in the 50th to 70th percentiles get three stars;  the ones in the 30th to 50th percentiles receive two stars;  those in the 10th to the 30th percentiles get one star;  and those in the bottom 10% of the distribution receive 0 stars.   

 Sites such as schooldigger may have some interesting bells and whistles, but they can never adequately address the question that I think is of greatest interest to parents:  How would my child fare in this school, as compared to another school?  If this is, indeed, the question, then school comparison websites are doomed to provide poor and potentially misleading answers.

 There are several reasons for this, but I’ll focus on just two.  First, the rankings do not take account of the kinds of students who attend a given school.  Since we know that there is a powerful association between family economic status and student achievement, schools serving high concentrations of poor children will, on average, rank lower than schools serving a predominantly middle- or upper-class population.  Stating this is not, I believe, a case of the soft bigotry of low expectations.  Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that a school’s context matters in judging how well the school is serving its students.

 I used schooldigger to identify schools within a mile of my office, and one of the schools that showed up was P.S. 180, the Hugo Newman School on 120th St. in Harlem.  At Hugo Newman, 85% of the students were proficient in math in 2008, and 65% were proficient in English Language Arts.  If we set aside reservations about using high-stakes tests as a measure of school performance—which I’ll do solely for the purpose of this posting—that sounds pretty good, especially when we take note of the fact that 88% of the students attending Hugo Newman are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.  The school’s letter grade on the student performance section of the 2007-2008 School Progress Report—boy, I’m breaking all of the rules here, aren’t I?—was an A.  Not too shabby, right?

 Schooldigger gave Hugo Newman one star.  That’s because it ranked tied for 1,592nd out of 2,276 elementary schools in New York State, which represents the 30th percentile of all New York State elementary schools. Comparing Hugo Newman to the elementary schools of Syosset or Jericho, with median family incomes of well over $100,000 per year, seems kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Those schools do not serve the kinds of children that Hugo Newman enrolls.  

 But even if we are able to solve the problem of comparing apples to apples, there is another challenge.  With the exception of the occasional brown spot (or worm!), biting into an apple in one place is pretty much the same as biting into it in another place.  That is, apples are pretty homogeneous in their composition.  And that means that one bite of an apple tells you a lot about the apple overall.  Not so for schools.  Even in schools that are relatively homogeneous in the kinds of children who attend them—the color of their skin, or their family economic standing—there frequently are substantial differences among children in their experiences in the school and how much they have learned.  The last 40 years of educational research have demonstrated conclusively that in the United States, there is far more variability in children’s achievement within a given school than there is across schools.  Much of this variability is masked when children’s learning is measured in the metric of proficiency rates, in which all children who are above the proficiency threshold are assumed to be achieving at similar levels.

 The fact that there is more variation in achievement within schools than between them may seem counterintuitive when we are drawn to think about schools that are exceptional, and a large school system such as New York’s has a number of schools whose reputations, and average student achievement, are extraordinary.  But nobody needs a school comparison website to figure out that the youth who attend New York City’s specialized exam high schools are high-achievers.  There are a lot more schools which are not extraordinary, and which are populated with students who are doing okay, on average, with some students doing very well, and others not so well.  The kinds of data available on a site such as schooldigger are ill-suited to predicting where in that distribution of outcomes a particular child might fall.  Any suggestion to the contrary is wishful thinking.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

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.