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 we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.