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

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.