Who Is In Charge

Data fears aired before State Board

The effort to build the next generation of student data systems is either “transformational” or ripe for “abuse.”

Photo of meeting participant
Lawyer Kahliah Barnes participated in the State Board of Education meeting via video link.

Those were some of the contrasting views expressed Thursday at a State Board of Education study session on inBloom, a data system that is being pilot tested in the Jefferson County Schools and a handful of districts around the nation. The state Department of Education also is a participant.

The $100 million project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corp., is attempting to build a data system that can aggregate student personal and academic information and link such data with online instructional materials that teachers can use to personalize teaching for individual student needs.

“It’s a great leap forward for teachers and classrooms and children,” Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson told the board. She used the example of math class studying a particular unit, explaining that a teacher could pull up data about an individual student’s work in that area and also receive specific suggestions for improving the student’s performance.

Stevenson also stressed the importance of integrating data. “Our teachers have all the data in the world now, but it’s on different systems.”

But the inBloom project has sparked concerns about privacy and the security of student information, both in Jeffco and elsewhere around the nation, including New York City.

“While we understand the value of data for personalized learning, there are too few safeguards,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. She cited a “growing risk that third parties would have access to sensitive student information.”

In a high-tech touch, Barnes both observed the study session and testified via a two-way video hookup.

The harshest criticism came from board member Debora Scheffel, a Republican from Parker. “Any time you centralize information there’s potential for abuse. I think the potential for abuse is substantial. … This to me is just another vehicle to centralize teaching. … I’m sorry Colorado is part of this pilot.”

The two-hour session was dominated by discussion of security issues, with less time spent on inBloom’s educational potential.

“Job number one for us is the security of the data,” said Sharren Bates, an executive of the Atlanta-based non-profit. She also stressed repeatedly that it’s up to school districts to decide what data to enter into the system, which holds the information in encrypted form on third-party servers.

Greg Mortimer, Jeffco’s chief information officer, also defended the security of the system.

But Barnes suggested that tighter controls are needed. “We encourage Colorado to make it a policy to limited the data available to inBloom,” adding that changes in state law might be necessary. “Colorado should take this opportunity to pass legislation concerning inBloom and other data collection companies.”

The privacy center is currently suing the U.S. Department of Education over rule changes that gave contractors greater access to student data if they work for school districts.

Another controversy about new data systems is whether parents should be able to opt out. Jeffco citizens who oppose inBloom have asked for the ability to do that.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson / File photo
Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson / File photo

Stevenson and others oppose the idea. “Opting out makes the system not as effective” because it creates gaps in the data, she said.

SBE member Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, struck a nuanced note as the hearing neared its end. “I don’t think we can say no, we’re not going to do it because someone will use it incorrectly. It’s the modern world, and we need to find a way to do it effectively.”

The inBloom system isn’t currently up and running in Jeffco, according to district officials. The pilot project, which doesn’t cost participating districts anything, runs through the end of next year, at which time the system should be finished. Then the district will have to decide whether it wants to continue using inBloom for a fee.

Mortimer roughly estimated the cost of such a system at between $2 and $5 per student a year, or about $170,000 to $425,000 for Jeffco. He said using inBloom would be less expensive for the district than building and maintaining its own comparable system.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: