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June 6, 2016

Behind every data point is a child

statistics-822231_640At CPE, we are data driven. We encourage educators, school leaders and advocates to be data-driven as well. (Indeed, we have a whole website, Data First, which is dedicated to just that. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time to check out.) So while we think an over-abundance of data is a good problem to have, we often remind ourselves and others to take a step back before acting on it, and consider that every data point represents a living, breathing, complex, does-not-fit-the-mold child.

Clearly, good data can lead you to solutions for improving policy and practice in the aggregate. It can also provide insights into particular classrooms or even students. But ultimately what an individual child needs is going to be, well, quirky. We may well find out that Joey struggled with fractions this quarter even though he did well in math the quarter before. If we keep digging, we might also discover that he was absent eight days. But the data won’t tell us why. We won’t even know if the inference that Joey’s fraction trouble was due to his multiple absences is the right one. There could be a million things going on with Joey that only he and his parents can help us understand. But we need to find out before we can effectively intervene.

NPR recently ran a story on Five Doubts About Data-Driven Schools that highlights some of the risks with an absolutist approach to data. I will just address two in this space, but encourage you to read the article itself. It’s short.

One: some critics believe a hyperfocus on data can suppress rather than spark motivation to do better, particularly for low-scoring students. Publishing data that points out differences by individuals or groups can lead to what psychologists call a “stereotype threat.” According to the article, “[M]erely being reminded of one’s group identity, or that a certain test has shown differences in performance between, say, women and men, can be enough to depress outcomes on that test for the affected group.”

I have had my own qualms about the practice in some schools of displaying student test scores, whether of individual students in the classroom or reported by teacher in the school building. There can be great value in having students examine their own data, and helping them use it to take greater charge of their own learning. But there’s also a fine line between encouraging constructive self-examination and reinforcing a potentially destructive perception of failure. Before instituting such a policy or practice, principals and district leaders should think very carefully about the messages being sent versus the messages students, parents and teachers actually hear.

Two: Just because we can collect the data, should it be part of a student’s permanent record? Most would agree that universities and potential employers should have access to student transcripts, grades, test scores and other academic information when making admissions or employment decisions. But, as the article points out, we are entering an era when psychometricians will be able to measure such characteristics as grit, perseverance, teamwork, leadership and others.  How confident should we be in this data? And even if it is reliable, should we even consider such data for traits exhibited in childhood and adolescence that are arguably mutable, and therefore may no longer be accurate descriptions of the individual? I have similar concerns about a child’s disciplinary record following him or her into adulthood.

Over and over again, the availability and effective use of education data has been shown to have a tremendous impact on improving performance at the system, school and individual level. Back to Joey and fractions. Had she not looked at his data, Joey’s teacher would not have identified his struggle, and it might have remained hidden only to become worse over time. This way she is able to dig more, ask questions, find out what Joey needs, and ideally, provide extra help so he will succeed.

But we also need to guard against the overuse of data, lest we allow it to reduce all of a student’s intellect, growth, production, and character to a number and lose a picture of the child.

Filed under: Accountability,CPE,Data — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 1:39 pm





September 16, 2015

Budgets, data and honest conversation

Balancing school budgets in a time of shortfalls is a thankless job. Whatever gets cut will nonetheless have its champions, many of whom are willing to let their unhappiness known. Really loud. But one of the nation’s largest school districts is meeting this challenge with a new app that gives the community a channel for telling school leaders exactly what expenditures they want preserved. The hitch – users keep their preferred items only by eliminating others.  In this way, the app delivers an object lesson in how really tough these decisions are.

Fairfax County school district in Virginia serves nearly 190,000 students with an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Despite the community’s affluence, enrollments are rising faster than revenues, and the district is facing a $50-100 million deficit. An earlier citizen task force was charged with recommending ways to close this gap. After reviewing the data, the task force suggested, among other things, eliminating high school sports and band. To say the proposal was not well received is to state the obvious. And the public howls and teeth-gnashing have yet to subside.

So what’s a broke district to do? Give the data to the community. Fairfax released this web-based budget tool to the public this week as a means to call the question: In order to keep [your priority here], what do we get rid of? Users are able to choose from more than 80 budget items to cut in seven categories: “school staffing and schedules,” “instructional programs,” “nonacademic programs,” “instructional support,” “other support,” “employee compensation” and “new or increased fees.”  Each item has a dollar figure attached and the goal is to reduce the budget by $50 million.

I happen to be a Fairfax resident so I was happy to test-drive this web tool. The first thing that struck me was the near absence of low-hanging fruit. All of the big ticket items hurt, mostly because the savings come from reduction in staff or valuable instruction time. Increase elementary class size by one student: $12.9 million. Reduce daily course offerings in high school from seven to six: $25 million. Reduce kindergarten from full-day to half-day: $39 million. Yikes! Given these choices, I could see why eliminating high school sports at nearly $9 million could start to look like a lesser evil.

On the other hand, items that seemed to do the least damage to the educational mission also saved a relative pittance. Raise student parking fees by $50: $300,000.  Reduce district cable TV offerings: $100,000. Increase community use fees: $70,000. Clearly, the nickel-and-dime strategy was not going to get me close to $50 million.

In the end, I came within the 10 percent margin of hitting the target (while keeping high school sports) and I submitted my preferences. But I’ll be honest. They include some choices that I do not feel the least bit happy about. And that’s the point. In 2010, CPE published a report on the impact of the recession on school budgets across the country. The title, Cutting to the Bone, pretty much tells the story. The current Fairfax deficit represents only 2 percent of its yearly budget. But after years of cost-cutting, there’s no fat left to trim.

Clearly, if I were a school board member, I would want to know more about the impact of these programs and policies before making any final decisions. But presenting the data on their cost and what the dollars buy – as this tool does — is a really good way to educate the community about the challenge and engage them in an honest conversation about how they can best serve their students, especially when revenues run short. — Patte Barth

Filed under: Data,funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 10:11 am





October 28, 2014

Building a better reporting system

As readers know, CPE is all about the importance of using data and research to craft effective school policy and practice. We also encourage everyone who has an interest in public schools to look at data when gauging their quality. Unfortunately, getting that data isn’t always as straightforward as it could be. Even when found, it’s often presented in long tables, complicated graphs and confusing formats that obscure rather than shed light on school performance.

The Data Quality Campaign sought to address the all-too-common lack of quality in the way states report school data to the public. DQC recently convened a task force of national education experts and advocates — an effort we were proud to be part of — to identify best practices in state reporting systems. The results of our meetings are contained in the publication, Empowering Parents and Communities through Quality Public Reporting, released today.

The recommendations are intended for state policymakers to inform their design of state data systems. These systems should feature the following characteristics:

  • First, the data is trustworthy. There’s obviously little value in data that is wrong or out-of-date so every effort must be made to ensure accuracy. In addition, an essential part of gaining the public’s trust in data systems is protecting student privacy. Indeed, parental concerns about who has access to their child’s data and how it is used have grown a lot over the last year. Both states and districts have a role in putting fail-safe limits on access to individual students’ data. (To learn more about how, NSBA’s general counsel’s office produced this excellent guide on assuring student data privacy and CPE/DQC developed this data privacy fact sheet for school boards.)
  • Good systems are also focused on meeting people’s information needs. Many state systems were developed with a view toward compliance with federal and state regulations. If this information was also useful to educators, administrators, policymakers, parents and press, it was merely by happenstance, not design. A good data system, however, is designed with the consumer in mind, going beyond compliance to provide a real service to education stakeholders.
  • State reporting is timely and ongoing. The data collection and vetting process can often delay public reporting for as long as two years. This doesn’t help teachers or parents who need to respond to students’ needs in real time, not long after the fact. The same is true for administrators and school boards who need current data to inform their decisions.
  • Finally, in a good system, data is easy to find, access and understand. Some state report cards are buried in the department of education website. Many others are hard to navigate or present the data in ways that are difficult to interpret. The DQC report features state-of-the-art data systems from Illinois, Ohio and others that demonstrate the possibilities in presenting data that is easy for non-statisticians to locate, understand and, ultimately, use effectively.

While the Empowering Parents report is intended for state policymakers, the accompanying fact sheets are written specifically for parents, administrators and school boards and they discuss how these different stakeholders can use data and be strong advocates for better data systems. — Patte Barth

Filed under: CPE,Data,Parents,School boards,teachers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 3:43 pm





December 2, 2011

What would you do with more data?

The Education Department issued a final rule yesterday allowing state and local education officials to share student data more widely without violating federal privacy laws. So what would you do with more student data?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the new rule “also makes lenders, guarantors, and other agencies with access to student records subject to the law, known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or FERPA.”

Combined with the recent report from the Data Quality Campaign that nearly all states have data systems that could allow them to track students’ progress over time, it looks like we may slowly be gaining a data infrastructure on our students’ growth. But the next question, of course, is: Would it be used?

So what would you do with more data? Are you itching to fill in some specific data gaps? Are you struggling to understand how to use it wisely? Do you, or your communities, have privacy concerns that need to be addressed? Let us know. And don’t forget to check out our data-specific Web site, Data First. –Rebecca St. Andrie

Filed under: Data — Tags: , — rstandrie @ 2:59 pm






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