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

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.

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.