14 April 2014

Policy Goes to School

In the last post, I suggested that policy work should be part of what teachers do---but it doesn't have to be labor intensive, yet another thing added to your daily routine. There are things teachers do everyday that don't look like policy (such as taking attendance), but end up as policy. It's this hidden piece I want to draw your attention to.

Recently, there was some new data released by the US Department of Education (USDOE) through its Civil Rights Data Collection. You might have seen the articles on the number of pre-school students suspended (including the disproportionality when it comes to minority children) and the variation among the states in terms of teacher credentialing. But it was the kerfuffle on course offerings that caught my eye.

According to an article on Politico, "Nationwide, at least 10 percent of high schools — and perhaps as many as 25 percent — fail to offer the complete sequence of core math and science classes: Algebra I and II, geometry, biology and chemistry... Minority students also had far less access to courses considered critical for college and career readiness. Among high schools that serve the largest share of black and Latino students, 25 percent don’t offer Algebra II and 33 percent don’t offer chemistry. Black and Latino students are also considerably less likely than peers to take Advanced Placement classes."

On the surface, this looks pretty bad, but not particularly surprising. Read on a little further and you find out that school district superintendents (or their designees) submitted the data. And while I don't think anyone purposefully doctors or intends to mislead, not all schools are alike. The article from Politico further states (emphasis mine):
The federal report found that barely half of Georgia’s high schools offered geometry; just 66 percent offered Algebra I.

Those data are just plain wrong, said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Department of Education. The state requires Algebra I, geometry and Algebra II for graduation, so all high schools have to offer the content — but they typically integrate the material into courses titled Math 1, 2, 3 and 4, Cardoza said. He surmised that some districts checked “no” on the survey because their course titles didn’t match the federal labels, even if the content did.

“It’s the name issue,” Cardoza said. “I think schools just didn’t know what to say.”
The term data quality refers to a variety of attributes about data, such as its timeliness, usefulness, and validity. At the end of the day, we're looking for the truth in the data. And the differences among schools can make it very difficult to find that truth. Let's take a look at these data submitted by districts to get an idea about their quality.

Suppose you're a working at a high school. You offer an algebra class...but you might not call it Algebra I. You might call it just plain Algebra. Or Algebraic Thinking. Heck, you might even have Advanced Algebra or Honors Algebra or 9th Grade Algebra. At the school level, this distinction doesn't really matter. The school has a master schedule, assigns highly qualified teachers to whatever sections it has that they identify as math. When a new student shows up and needs a math credit, everything in the student information system enables the placement.

But that isn't the end of the story. There's another layer of data that few---maybe just the registrar or district data manager, but rarely the superintendent---will ever see. There's a whole taxonomy of course codes determined by the National Center for Education Statistics. These course codes are collected by the state and are part of the district student information system. But because the district doesn't use them for anything---remember, they have their own labels---not many pay attention to what fills those fields.

Here is one example (click to embiggen):

These are the math classes for Bellevue High School for the 2012 - 13 school year. (data source here). Columns 4 - 6 include state course labels---the invisible ones---and 7 and 8 are designated for the district. So, let's dig into the last row ("Mathematics-Other") and see what the district is lumping in there.

Notice that in the second column from the right---District Course Title---we have things like Alg I Seminar, Gmtry Seminar, G-Alg 1 Seminar. We can't see the syllabi for these classes, but it's likely that algebra and geometry concepts are being taught. Kids are getting math credits and are being scheduled into math classes, but a data pull at a state or federal level will never see these.

It gets worse. Start digging through "miscellaneous" categories, and you start to see things like this:

The state course code on the left says English Language and Literature-Other...and the district has assigned biology, chemistry, physics, nanotechnology, and more to this category. Even assuming these are courses for English language learners, special education students, or other population, it's still science content---it doesn't belong in English. At this level, data quality is a real mess. And when a district submits these data to the USDOE, it distorts the number of students (especially special populations) enrolled in math courses.

This is not to say that there isn't a problem with minority students being funneled into low-level math courses...or that the problem is a lot less significant than what was reported. But I do think that as soon as state or federal level policy wonks can dismiss an issue based on data quality, we only serve to further entrench institutionalized racism.

But what to do? After all, it doesn't make a difference to the district. They have their own codes and credit systems. It does make a difference to anyone outside of that system. It's public data. Anyone can use it for any reason---from bureaucrats trying to make decisions about allocations to think-tanks sounding the alarm about equity. But it's only when these data become public and cause districts to re-examine them do the issued bubble up. We have to do it before then. Data quality needs to be integrated with daily work.

Even if you're not going to make calls and send letters to politicians, you're making policy in your classroom. I tell teachers all the time that paying attention to data quality is the simplest way to have a direct effect on policy. You might not think that attendance you took in first period matters...but it does. As it rolls up, districts will make decisions about how they make resources...states will consider policy. How many absences before a student should be considered "at-risk"? What strategies work best to improve attendance rates? What should be the legal consequences for students or parents when kids don't attend school?

If we want better policy...if we want policy makers to "get it right"...then we have to do more than complain about them. We can take accurate attendance and grades. We can review our courses in the schedule to make sure they're coded correctly. We can use community outreach programs to ensure underreprented voices are reported. You don't have to step outside of your classroom to make a difference in the outer realms of policy. You just have to realize you're connected.

11 April 2014

Hot and Steamy...Policy?

I've spent a few years watching the policy sausage get made. It isn't pretty. On the train home from a recent conference, a college professor asked me if I miss the classroom and why I keep working where I do. The answer to the first question is easy: I do. The second answer is more complicated, but a major factor is that there are very few teachers in my role---and I think that decisions made at the state level about classrooms should include a teacher's voice. Actually, I think it should include lots of teachers' voices, but policy is not a particularly arousing endeavor.

But you don't need to leave the classroom for the cube farm to have an impact on educational policy. And you don't have to go to Washington DC, either, to make a difference. So, in this post, I'll give you a few ideas to get you started. And in the next one, we'll take a look at why even small steps can be so very powerful.

Legislators know that teachers are voters. Maybe that sounds obvious, but let's face it, a lot of people who can vote don't choose to do so. But educators take their responsibility seriously. Make the phone call, send the email, or write the letter about an issue that's important to you. When you make contact, you remind them that you vote and they are accountable to that.
  • Identify the correct level of government that can make the decision. Don't like standardized testing? You can talk to someone at the federal level, but I can pretty much guarantee you that won't lead anywhere. Having said that, there are still things you can do to change outcomes if you can't have an effect at the source.
  • This leads to point two: pick your battles wisely. You have to be realistic. For example, your state legislator will know (or a staffer will remind them) that having tests is tied to federal funding---so a legislator will not eliminate them. However, they do have power over how the results of state tests are used. Does your state have policies around graduation requirements, funding formulas, or other areas tied to testing? They don't have to. Put your pressure there. You're not going to get rid of big tests. You can get rid of bad policy around how they're used.
Don't want to chat with the yahoos at the state capital? Work more locally, then. Meet with the mayor or send an email to a city council member. Sure, they don't make policy around testing (for example), but they are in regular contact with those who do. Share your opinion and experience. You might be surprised how interested others can be and where your words are repeated and shared.
  •  Be patient. Policy making is glacial. Not only does it take a long time for something to be put in place...it can take even longer to get rid of it. (Just look at NCLB...now nearly a decade past when it was to be reauthorized, but no one will touch it.) But don't mistake the lack of complete resolution to your request to represent inaction. 
  • One passionate squeaky person raises the awareness and ideas in a lot of other people. Part of my role, for example, is to advocate for our small districts. They don't have a designated person for their needs in the agency. Instead, I spend a lot of time adding "What about the little schools?" to conversations. Sometimes, that's met with "Meh." But more and more as of late, I get people telling me their stories along the lines of "I thought of you when I was talking to x about education topic y and said we needed to remember how to address what this looks like in small schools." Equity for small schools is starting to be normalized as people talk about policy. It doesn't mean those schools will see something different tomorrow, but it means there are a lot more people who will start to address them directly. Speak  up. Speak often. Even if it's just a question you raise during a hallway conversation. Put your $.02 in as consistently as you can.
Don't want to go to the mountain? You can always invited policy people to come to you. If you're convinced your legislator is clueless about what happens in a classroom...give them a clue. Ask them to come hang out for a day (or a class period). I never hear of EdCamps or other local events that actively recruit policy people. Instead, I hear attendees whine about how "they [policy wonks] don't get it." We're teachers. Why not take advantage of our skills and educate them? If you can't get your legislative representative, grab their staffer. S/He is likely the one feeding the opinions to the rep, anyway. Reach out and get the power behind the throne on your side. Again, work at local levels, if you need to.

Policy work isn't attractive to most educators. I know I don't find it sexy. However, it's important to remember that this is public education. I don't doubt for a moment that teachers are the most critical component in affecting student learning, but they are not the only part in the system. Closing the classroom door and complaining about the rest of the education world will change nothing. Make something happen. Make policy part of your work.