Tag: school data


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A WikiLeaks for American Public Education?


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The news about the latest release of U.S. diplomatic information by WikiLeaks has caused a global uproar, with federal and international diplomatic officials putting its founder in their respective cross-hairs…

The news about the latest release of U.S. diplomatic information by WikiLeaks has caused a global uproar, with federal and international diplomatic officials putting its founder in their respective cross-hairs for daring to inform us on matters about which we have always sort of suspected. Certainly the leaks aren’t exactly in the interest of American national security (nor does your editor support the underlying anti-American philosophy of the site itself). But in releasing the information, WikiLeaks has fulfilled two fundamental tenets at the heart of America’s democratic republicanism: That American citizens have the right to know how their government conducts its activities; and that a free press — including the ability to leak government documents — is critical to keeping government accountable to the citizenry.

One wouldn’t think American public education needs a WikiLeaks of sorts. After all, we have plenty of school data (125 data collection regimes in California alone); graduation rates and test scores are already available in one form or another. But the reality is that most school data and analysis, like national security information, is a black box of sorts, making data unavailable for  easy use by parents, policymakers and even teachers and principals for making smart decisions. The kind of longitudinal, value-added analysis of student, school and teacher performance that families and school systems need to improve education is also not widely available.

Most state data systems remain difficult for even sophisticated researchers to use. Florida, Indiana and even California (whose overall data systems are neither fully longitudinal nor in great shape) are still the easiest-to-use systems for laymen even two years after I co-wrote A Byte At the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era. School district data systems are generally even worse. More often than not, it’s as hard to use district Web sites out how to find something as simple as information on how to enroll in a particular school as it is to find out test and enrollment data.

When it comes to value-added data, it is even worse. As seen in the battle in October between New York City’s Department of Education and the American Federation  of Teachers’ affiliate there, teachers unions will do all they can to stop any analysis of teacher performance through the use of student test data. If anything, there is clearly need for a WikiLeaks of sorts; parents should be able to know the quality of the teachers who teach their kids.  And the growing evidence shows that teachers are the most-critical factor in student achievement.

One underlying problem is that education data has largely been used for complying with federal, state and local regulations, not for actual use as a consumer good. This is, in part, the natural consequences of a government-controlled system of education, and a culture that has little regard for the importance and use of data. The dysfunctional political structures of state systems of educational governance is also a culprit; as seen in California, the Progressive-era decentralization of school governance (ostensibly meant to get politics out of education) often ensures little cooperation on availing all forms of school data.

The other reason why school data remains a black box affair: The fear, especially among the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other defenders of education’s status quo (and even among school reformers who should know better like Rick Hess) that data and analysis will be used by families and politicians to finally hold all players in education accountable for laggard instruction, turgid curriculum and antiquated practices and rules (tenure and degree- and seniority-based pay scales) that don’t actually work in fostering the cultures of genius needed to improve education. This not only can be traced back to the traditional disregard for data among education circles, but to the conceit held by many of them that education is a domain for experts alone.

This is shameful. As much as we demand parents to be actively engaged in education, we don’t provide them the data they need in order to be informed players. Just as importantly, education is as much a consumer good as it is a civil right. As the people who pay for the operation of school systems and the guardians of the customers (our kids) who must attend them, parents should have easy access to data and should have the tools needed to understand what data actually means for their kids.

School choice activists among the school reform movement should be particularly interested in making widely accessible and understandable school data a reality. Parents can’t exercise smart choices without being fully informed. Those who argue that public schools are essential to preserving the nation’s democratic republican values should also want widely-available school data. After all, you cannot make sure schools do the job of preparing kids to fulfill their economic and social destinies unless you have data. You can’t address achievement gaps or stem the nation’s dropout crisis without knowing what schools are actually doing and measuring results.

Organizations such as GreatSchools.org (whose origins date back to ratings agency Standard & Poor’s efforts a decade ago to evaluate school spending) have begun providing some useful data on school performance. The Los Angeles Times helped move the ball further earlier this year when it published value-added performance data on 5,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District; for parents and for the rest of us, it is more evidence that teachers are the most-important element in student achievement (and has shown how state laws and union collective bargaining agreements have promoted laggard instruction, desultory performance management and lax operational management within traditional districts). All these steps should be applauded and supported.

But we have not yet seen the kind of collective effort to provide deep, understandable information that WikiLeaks is now making a standard in understanding foreign policy and national security. We don’t have armies of volunteers ready to conduct value-added analysis or even build robust data systems akin to a Wikipedia. Nor do we have companies that are working to develop such systems (which would help foster a true free market for school data in the long run). We need more news outlets and school reform groups willing to challenge state laws that ban the use of student data in measuring teacher quality by actually getting the data and doing the work. The citizen’s right to know — and the importance of providing a high-quality education to every child — should be paramount.

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This is Dropout Nation: America’s Truancy Problem: The L.A. County Example


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Two hundred seventy-two thousand Los Angeles County students were truant during the 2008-2009 school year. Let that sink in. Two hundred seventy-two thousand kids. That is 16 percent of all…

In L.A. County's San Gabriel Unified, students stay out more than they check in. (Photo courtesy of the San Gabriel Unified School District.)

Two hundred seventy-two thousand Los Angeles County students were truant during the 2008-2009 school year. Let that sink in. Two hundred seventy-two thousand kids. That is 16 percent of all the students attending schools in the heart of Southern California, or 1,509 students skipping school without an excuse every school day.

We know where many of these kids will end up: They will become high school dropouts. What is astounding is that thanks to California education officials and the state legislature, we even know the truancy rate at all. Most states are ignoring the importance of reporting credible, honest truancy numbers, leaving unaddressed a critical symptom of the nation’s dropout crisis.

Within the past five years, researchers such as Robert Balfanz have proven that truancy is one of the foremost symptoms of America’s educational crisis and a primary indicator of whether a student will drop out or graduate from school. As Balfanz, Lisa Herzog and Douglas Mac Iver pointed out in a 2007 study, a sixth-grader missing a fifth of the school year has just a 13 percent chance of graduating six years later. In elementary school, truancy is a sign of parenting issues. In later grades, truancy is an indicator that a child has given up on learning after years of poor teaching, lousy curricula and lack of engagement (and caring) by teachers and principals.

Yet, as with graduation rates a decade ago, states and school districts do an abysmal job of tracking truancy (and school attendance overall) and offers misleading statistics on the true size of the problem. California offers a decent start on how to solve the latter. But it will require better data standards and data systems to make real progress.

The problem starts with the statistics itself. Most states calculate attendance by dividing the total number of days missed by students by the total number of days they are supposed to attend (usually 180 days multiplied by enrollment). This metric, used largely for school funding, is great for district coffers. But it’s terrible for addressing truancy. Why? It hides the levels of truancy plaguing a school because it includes all unexcused absences, not just the set number of days under which a student is considered by law to be truant. Add in the fact that tardiness (or excess lateness by a student) is added into the attendance rate and one doesn’t get the full sense of a truancy problem. After all, one reacts differently to a 93 percent attendance rate (which makes it seem as if most kids are attending school) than a rate that shows that 16 percent of students are truant (which is more-accurate and distressing).

What principals, teachers, district officials and parents need is the percentage of students reaching the state definition of truancy (in many states, 10 or more days of unexcused absences) — in order to identify clusters of truancy — and the chronic truants themselves (so they can be targeted for additional help). A group of teachers at New York City’s High School for Telecommunications – frustrated with the district’s poor attendance tracking — are among those developing technologies to improve how attendance is calculated. The technological solutions, however, are meaningless without developing actual calculations that plainly break down what is happening and making the data public for all to see.

California is one of two states (out of 10) surveyed by Dropout Nation that have gone this far in providing truancy data.  (Indiana, the epicenter for a 2007 editorial series Dropout Nation’s editor wrote on truancy for The Indianapolis Star, is the other). Unlike other states, the state Department of Education publishes something called an actual Truancy rate, which shows the percentage of students missing three or more days of school unexcused. Even better, its data system actually shows the number of truant students in any given county, district or school. For a researcher or truancy prevention advocate, this is a much-better first step in determining the extent of truancy than the traditional attendance rates reported by other states.

What one learns, particularly about truancy in districts in Los Angeles County, is distressing. Fifty-seven of L.A. County’s 88 school districts (including the county department of education) had truancy rates of greater than 10 percent. Within the county’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, 77 of its 658 schools were plagued with truancy rates greater than 10 percent. While high schools were plagued with double-digit truancy rates, so were middle schools such as Charles Drew in the city’s Florence-Graham neighborhood; there, 54 percent of the student population were chronically truant. The truancy rate for L.A. Unified overall was 5.4 percent; but the number leaves out truancy levels at the elementary school level (where as many as one in ten kindergarten and first grade students miss a month of school). (A a full list is on L.A. County is available here.)

A PORTRAIT OF TRUANCY: SAN GABRIEL UNIFIED

School Enrollment* Number of Students with UnexcusedAbsence or Tardy on 3 or More Days (truants) Truancy Rate
Coolidge Elementary 385 197 51.17%
Del Mar High 69 102 147.83%
Gabrielino High 1,794 1,535 85.56%
Jefferson Middle 1,239 691 55.77%
Mckinley Elementary 712 210 29.49%
Roosevelt Elementary 415 203 48.92%
Washington Elementary 458 241 52.62%
Wilson Elementary 367 161 43.87%
San Gabriel Unified District 5,439 3,340 61.41%

For all of its dysfunction, L.A. Unified doesn’t have the highest truancy rate in the county. That distinction belongs to the nearby San Gabriel Unified School District, where 61 percent of students were chronically truant. The level of unexplained absences starts early; 51 percent of students at Coolidge Elementary School were truant, while at Gabriellino High, the truancy rate was 86 percent. Another high-truancy district is Lynwood Unified, whose truancy rate of 56 percent was just below that of San Gabriel. Almost every one of the 3,152 students at Lynwood High School had missed three or more days of school without any explanation, while 81 percent of students at Cesar Chavez Middle School were truant.

A PROFILE OF TRUANCY: LYNWOOD UNIFIED

School Enrollment* Number of Students with Unexcused Absence or Tardy on 3 or More Days (truants) Truancy Rate
Cesar Chavez Middle 976 791 81.05%
Helen Keller Elementary 621 249 40.1%
Hosler Middle 1,159 1,011 87.23%
Janie P. Abbott Elementary 676 247 36.54%
Lincoln Elementary 644 176 27.33%
Lindbergh Elementary 784 179 22.83%
Lugo Elementary 492 218 44.31%
Lynwood High 3,152 3,137 99.52%
Lynwood Middle 1,648 1,450 87.99%
Marco Antonio Firebaugh High 1,875 863 46.03%
Mark Twain Elementary 616 197 31.98%
Pathway Independent Study 84 10 11.9%
Roosevelt Elementary 540 196 36.3%
Rosa Parks Elementary 626 99 15.81%
Thurgood Marshall Elementary 673 260 38.63%
Vista High (Continuation) 314 101 32.17%
Washington Elementary 786 198 25.19%
Will Rogers Elementary 769 190 24.71%
Wilson Elementary 586 102 17.41%
Lynwood Unified District 17,021 9,674 56.84%

The data  isn’t perfect. Tardiness is incorporated into the numbers, which could skew the number of actual absentees. One could also argue that three days of unexcused absence may be strict. But at least California has made a first step towards  reporting realistic attendance data — and school districts have information they can use to address the underlying causes of truancy.

This isn’t happening in a successful way. School districts in Los Angeles County haven’t exactly done a great job addressing truancy. Despite high-profile sweeps, anti-truancy ordinances and other efforts by districts in the county, the truancy rate countywide has barely budged between 2004-2005 and 2008-2009. L.A. Unified, even took the media-grabbing step of having its outgoing superintendent, Ramon Cortines and school board members go door to door to grab truants, is the only one that can report a decline, with a 34 percent decrease in truancy in that time. But even those efforts are only band-aids; more importantly, since the sweeps tend to happen during periods when districts must count up students in order to gain funding, the moves can viewed cynically  as just ways to keep the money flowing without actually doing anything to address the underlying causes of truancy. School district officials and charter school operators in L.A. County must do a better job of addressing the underlying issues — as must their counterparts throughout the nation.

But at least California (along with Indiana) has taken a step that most other states — especially Virginia and Tennessee, two of the other states surveyed by  Dropout Nation — refuse to do.  Accurate, honest, publicly-reported data is the critical first step to making the technological and academic changes needed to stop truancy in its tracks — and keep every kid on the path to economic, social and personal success.

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Gutting Accountability: The Price of Hankering for Reauthorization


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Last month, I clearly stated some reasons why the Obama administration shouldn’t bother pursuing the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act — and why school reformers shouldn’t bother…

Two kids attending the Bronx Charter School for Better Living

Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News

Last month, I clearly stated some reasons why the Obama administration shouldn’t bother pursuing the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act — and why school reformers shouldn’t bother pushing it either. The most important reason of all had to do with the reality that there was ultimately more for the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other defenders of traditional public education to gain from reauthorization than for school reformers; the proceedings would give them opportunities to weaken the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions within No Child that have helped shine light on the academic mistreatment of poor black, white and Latino children.

Since then, the Alliance for Excellent Education and other groups have pushed even further for reauthorization. And, depending on whether the Obama administration continues to sink into a political quagmire by pursuing health care reform and more-liberalized immigration (the latter of which I strongly support, but know is a tough sell even in good times), they may get reauthorization. But in the process, the Obama administration has shown far too much willingness to ditch AYP and turn the clock back on accountability altogether. President Obama formally announced yesterday his plans to do so — and to the virtual applause of defenders of traditional public education.

This is understandable in light of the administration’s political considerations. Having angered the NEA and AFT over Race to the Top (which has strongly encouraged states to link student test score performance with teacher evaluations, and is helping to lift restrictions on the expansion of charter schools), Obama and congressional Democrats must throw these important constituencies a bone; the NEA and AFT, after all, bring more than $66 million a year in much-needed campaign donations to the table at a time in which Democratic control of Congress is not only not assured, but may actually be lost by November. Considering that Obama has also been critical of AYP while on the campaign trail — and that Republicans post-G.W. Bush are divided about No Child (with many, notably the ranking Republican on the House education committee, strongly opposed to much of what No Child stands for altogether), the administration apparently thinks AYP is not worth keeping.

But by ditching AYP and leaving it up to states and school districts to decide how to remedy pervasive academic failure, the very progress the nation has made in improving the prospects of the nation’s poorest children and racial and ethnic minorities to gain high-quality education will be lost. States and school districts have proven that they will do little to address the achievement gap and improve teacher quality without federal intervention and activism. By gutting accountability, these children — the one’s most-neglected by traditional public education — will wind up back on public education’s proverbial short buses. Without strong accountability, without AYP, the efforts by Alliance and other groups on college readiness will be meaningless; you can’t be ready for college if you can’t read, write or multiply.

Common Core standards will also be meaningless without AYP accountability; so long as schools aren’t held accountable for implementing them in reality, the proposed standards will be little more than ink on paper. Anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t thinking. It doesn’t matter how much support Arne Duncan gives to Common Core (and honestly, NAEP offers a much-better way to bring states under one national standard than the admirable hodgepodge currently under consideration).

School reformers likely feel like they have been sold out. But this is the price they pay for not paying full attention to the politics driving Obama’s activities. Having overreached on far too many big reform efforts — almost all, save for education reform, aren’t embraced by the public — and failing to deliver on the Employee Free Choice Act, his administration is faced with the loss of congressional majorities and anger from labor unions and activists within the party who have expected more from him. He can no longer ignore teachers unions or other traditional defenders of public education, who bring more money to the political game than they do (even with the powerful dollars of Bill Gates and Eli Broad). They also bring the ground troops the Democrats will need to keep their seats. Why not some bad education policy in exchange for maintaining control of Congress?

The best solution for school reformers is to forget reauthorization this year. In fact, push against any decision until 2011, when Obama will need their support for his own re-election. After all, No Child’s provisions will remain in effect for this year. Which means the status quo remains ante. And for the millions of young children benefiting from AYP, this is the best possible scenario given the political climate.

By the Way (2:44 p.m. EST): Eduflack and Andy Smarick offer dueling and differing views on where accountability stands in the proposed reauthorization. Eduflack understates the impact of the changes, but notes that there is much for the NEA and AFT to dislike about the plan — even though without accountability, it is much harder to hold teachers or schools accountable in a meaningful way. Smarick says he’s conflicted; he wants the feds to play a much-smaller role in education reform and regulation, but realizes the damage that will come from the loss of the AYP provisions.

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Read: Snowbound Edition


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What’s happening today in the dropout nation: When the National Education Association took control of the Indiana State Teachers Association last year, Association after the collapse of its insurance trust…

What’s happening today in the dropout nation:

  1. When the National Education Association took control of the Indiana State Teachers Association last year, Association after the collapse of its insurance trust fund, it was more than just a colossal embarrassment of alleged financial mismanagement – and a loss of coverage for its 50,000 rank-and-file members. After decades of winning expensive compensation packages that have made teaching one of the best-paid professions in the public sector, the collapse of ISTA — along with $600 billion in pension deficits and underfunded retirement liabilities — exposes teachers unions to increased scrutiny — especially as taxpayers may end up on the hook for the unions’ failings. Read more about the collapse — and how it could help spur teacher compensation and quality reforms — in my latest Labor Watch report.
  2. Tom Vander Ark sums up the problem with the Obama Administration’s decision to essentially gut the No Child Left Behind Act by eliminating its Adequate Yearly Progress provisions: Doing so will abandon the promise of assuring that every child no matter their race or economic status, can attend a great school staffed by high-performing teachers. Of course, as I hinted last week in The American Spectator, the administration may be doing this (along with boosting education spending for FY 2011) in order to placate the NEA and AFT, whose help they will need in order to keep control of Congress.
  3. The folks behind The Lottery are rallying folks around an “Education Constitution” demanding teacher quality reforms, expansion of school choice and other reforms. Check it out and sign it.
  4. The U.S. Department of Education releases a timely report on an important — if rarely-considered — use of school data: Improving teaching, staffing, student diagnostics and other matters at the district, school and even classroom levels. As I wrote last year in A Byte at the Apple, school data will only be the most useful once the information is delivered and made accessible in ways teachers, administrators and parents find appealing and useful. Right now, however, this is still a problem.
  5. Speaking of useful data, the Consortium on Chicago School Research has a series of papers examining the on-time graduation progress of the Windy City’s high school students. Each of Chicago’s high schools are examined in depth. Read them. I am.
  6. EducationNews is re-running another one of teaching guru Martin Haberman’s fine essays, this on whether the right people are entering teaching. Given the efforts to reform ed schools and weed out laggards before they even apprentice, the piece is as timely as ever.
  7. And, with Gary Orfield’s study of charter school segregation gaining attention from newspapers and school reformers alike, Sonya Sharp of Mother Jones points out the one thing everyone forgets: Traditional school districts are just as segregated (and often, even more segregated) no matter where we go. Joanne Jacobs also offers a compendium of the arguments (including those by your friendly neighborhood editor). And, by the way, here is a piece I wrote a few years ago about diversity and public schools.
  8. Intramural Sparring Watch: Big Edreform Andy #1 (also known as Andrew Rotherham) This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo (and his employer, Scholastic) for for allegedly running “hearsay” claims against Massachusetts’ education secretary, Paul Reveille, for his supposed intervention in the authorizing of a local charter school. Russo, by the way, has taken potshots against Rotherham and his folks at the Education Sector (which Rotherham, by the way, is leaving by the end of March) for years. Most recently, he accused EdSector of allegedly mucking around with a report authored by EdSector’s now-departed cofounder. Yeah, I’m exhausted from just writing about this.

Meanwhile, check out this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on the reauthorization of No Child, along with my pieces this week on charter schools and segregation. The next podcast, on civil rights activists and education reform, will be available on Sunday before the Super Bowl. And since you are all stuck inside, get your debate on.

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Watch: Inflated Graduation Rates in Kentucky


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For those who don’t fully understand the issue of inflated graduation rate reports by state governments, here is a video produced by the Bluegrass Institute that details how Kentucky overstates…

Good for thoroughbreds. Not for students

Good for thoroughbreds. Not for students

For those who don’t fully understand the issue of inflated graduation rate reports by state governments, here is a video produced by the Bluegrass Institute that details how Kentucky overstates its graduation rates by as much as 12 percent. If accurate school data were horses…

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Temporary Money for Permanent Issues


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There isn’t a state that isn’t scrambling for federal Race to the Top funding. But California, already mired in battles over spending priorities and bloated budgets, has the most intriguing…

Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee

Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee

There isn’t a state that isn’t scrambling for federal Race to the Top funding. But California, already mired in battles over spending priorities and bloated budgets, has the most intriguing proposal for using some of those dollars: Finally connecting its sprawl of education data systems into one longitudinal regime.

Earlier this month, state legislators defied the California Teachers Association by eliminating a restriction on tying together the state’s student data and teacher data systems. At the same time, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is championing measures that would create performance pay scales for teachers, essentially tying teacher compensation to student achievement.

Even if all of the measures (which includes eliminating the state-mandated cap on charter schools) get past the CTA and the legislature, California isn’t guaranteed Reach to the Top funds. And even if they get the money, it doesn’t solve the long-term reasons why state school data systems have been anything but: The lack of political will in overcoming the structural obstacles to unifying the systems. Until California addresses how it governs it primary, secondary and post-secondary education systems (including the atrociously balkanized college data systems within the University of California, California State and community college systems) and determines who will actually operate these systems, the funding will simply be spent with little in the way of results.

You can read more in my chapter on school data systems in A Byte At the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era. Eric Osberg also offers his thoughts.

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