lessons learned

Report: what other states can learn from NYC's data systems

Acknowledging that asking teachers to analyze student data has not fundamentally changed how they teach, Department of Education officials are beginning to change their approach. And other states just beginning to build their own student databases can learn from the city’s pivot, according to a report out today from Education Sector, a D.C.-based think tank.

The report recounts the brief history of New York City’s adventures with its own database known as ARIS, for Achievement Reporting and Innovation System. It also looks at schools’ gradual adoption of “data inquiry teams,” which about 65 percent of teachers were using at the end of last year.

Inquiry teams are groups of four or five teachers that select a small number of low-performing students to focus on. With information culled from ARIS, the teachers try and alter curriculum and teaching methods to improve the students’ performance. These teams are the DOE’s largest-scale reform that directly targets the instructional process. Officials hope to bring the participation rate up to 90 percent by the end of this year.

One DOE official notes in the report, “data analysis ‘is not yet leading to fundamental change in teacher practice or decision-making.” The reports states that some of the reason for that is that ARIS isn’t showing teachers as much data as they want to see as fast as they want to see it. But the city clearly expects that to change as it opens ARIS up to data that comes from teachers, not just to them. Here are some of the changes the city has in store:

  • Responding to complaints that ARIS’s data isn’t updated frequently enough and is too broad to really help inquiry teams, the city is creating ARIS Local, which we reported on last month. Though several years away, ARIS Local will eventually let teachers load their own data onto the city’s servers. This could eventually give teachers the ability compare how a student does on a test the teacher made herself to how he does on the state’s exams.

  • One drawback of ARIS that the city is beginning to look at is the fact that only teachers, administrators, and parents can access the data. Community and after-school organizations that work with students can’t see their attendance information, or whether they’re classified as English language learners. But that is changing, as Tucker writes:

    “Sophie Lippincott, former director of knowledge sharing in the Division of Performance and Accountability, sees the clear value of sharing ARIS information with community-based organizations, and she has been trying to begin a program to do so. “It’s obviously in our favor to have partner organizations using ARIS,” she says. The district has trained two organizations that are “gung-ho . . . and ready to go,” she says. But, here again, organizational silos are proving difficult to break. The developers of ARIS did not contemplate out-of-school use; because user authentication is based on the Education Department’s human resources databases, it is difficult for non-school employees to gain access. (The district has recently developed a temporary solution that enables schools to grant access to certain community partners.)”

  • Though the DOE hasn’t have the tracking programs it needs to know what parts of the site are getting the most use or how parents are viewing ARIS, officials do know that more parents are logging in. The report states:

    “A total of 62,000 unique users logged in to the ARIS educator tools from July 2009 to March 2010. As of August 2009, 340,000 different parent accounts had been accessed at least once, most often during parent/ teacher conferences.”

    The report gives examples of some ways the city has tried to get low-income families to check out their students’ scores.

    “Parent Link employed more strategies in a pilot effort to boost use by low-income families in 24 schools. Successful strategies include using parent and student volunteers; in one school, students train their parents and have them sign notes confirming they have logged in to Parent Link. Teachers have been trained in how to talk about data with parents. Another school opened its library early for ARIS workshops, and at another, a parent coordinator e-mailed parents who had not logged in. One school, located across from a homeless shelter, even created a resource room with a washer, dryer, and Internet access.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”