Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ann Arbor: Are We Operating in a Data-less World?

I'm reflecting on the Ann Arbor school district's budget study session, and the recommendations that have come out of it.

And it just makes me wonder--are we operating in a data-less world?

It's a little hard to get a fix on exactly how much needs to be cut, and it does need to be cut. I might make some people unhappy by advocating for more cuts rather than fewer, but given the uncertainties in the budget that would make sense to me.

How do you go from needing to cut 20 million to 8.6 million. . . and then back up again. . .

In any case, I accept that there will be teacher cuts. [Speak to the legislators and tell them to restore funding to the School Aid Fund.] I don't have any trouble with cutting a staff person from the Pioneer theater program. [Have you seen how much money Pioneer Theatre Guild makes?] I accept that pay to play sports will cost more for my son next year.

But it seems to me that we are making decisions without data that the district should be able to provide.

For instance, I asked a couple of weeks ago, when the proposal to cut all of the Reading Intervention teachers came up, "But is the Reading Intervention program working?" [Not surprisingly, the Reading Intervention teachers say yes, and here is their web site.]

I argued, if the program is working, we shouldn't cut it, because early interventions for reading are important; and if it isn't working, we should have cut it earlier.

And then. . . the school board decides to cut it. . . in half. To my mind, this is the least satisfying thing they could do. Is the program working, or not? I am sure that there is data that shows that it is or isn't working. But maybe the data doesn't exist. If it doesn't exist, then that's a different problem. Cutting the program in half appears to show that you have no idea if the program is working or not.

The school board is deciding to cut high school busing. I think this is a terrible idea, at least in the mornings. (I saw an interesting suggestion to keep busing in the morning, and cut it in the afternoon--I liked that idea but I'm not sure if it is legal.)

But what I really want to know is this: how many low-income kids live in areas that are too far from their high schools to get there without high school busing? Many of the complexes with large numbers of low-income students are not on bus routes.

If we assume that most middle class kids would, in fact, be able to find a way to school (and I'm not sure that's true, but let's make that assumption), how many low-income kids would have trouble getting to school? I'm thinking, for instance, of kids who lives outside the bus lines at Scio Farms, Orchard Grove Village, or Lakestone (formerly Eagle Pointe) Apartments. How would they get to Pioneer or Skyline? What about kids who live in apartment complexes that are on bus routes--say, for example, Glencoe Hills? Would we pay for them to have bus passes?

Do we have this data? I would think we should use it to inform our decisions. Do the supposed cost savings account for paying for kids (at least low-income kids) to have bus passes? Does it account for some number of low-income kids dropping out? Do we even know how many kids we would put at risk of dropping out?

Where is the data?


  1. For as much as "data" is being pushed in curriculum in the last year in AAPS, I am shocked that data collection seems to be thin to nil in the administrative realm.

    My other big concern is that teachers and many educators are absolutely not trained on collecting data and essentially being statisticians. While it may seem intuitive that data is simply asking questions and collecting responses, it's far more complex than this - asking the right questions can reveal certain data. Asking flawed questions can result in seriously flawed data. This is a problem if data drives our decisions.

  2. Sure. But when data is being collected (for example lexile scores for reading) and not being used to tell us if a program is successful, that is wrong too.

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  4. A nice follow up to your post about the Broad Foundation and the true emptiness of their rhetoric about "data-driven decisions."

  5. Speaking of data, do you have any information about equity of opportunity with regard to credits? If the seventh hour is cut at Pioneer and Huron, that means those students have the opportunity to ear only 12 credits a year, as compared with 15 at Skyline and 14 at Community. With many of the more competitive colleges looking for additional years of science and language, the playing field will not be even for all high school students with regard to ability to earn credit.

    Is this even possible in a district in the state?

  6. It is my understanding that Skyline then would move to the semester system. Community is already under the semester system. They would all operate under the same guidelines as far as 7th hour goes.

    Also, I was told by one administrator that fewer than a quarter of the kids actually use 7th hour. But a parent told me that is incorrect, and also that you can't do music (orchestra, band or choir) and 4 years of a language and get all your credits in without also doing seventh hour at least some of the time. Does anybody know?

  7. My child does music and is going for four years of language and has taken seventh hour one semester each year so far (she's a sophomore). She has to fit those stupid phys ed credits in somehow. She looked into taking stuff "online" over the summer but there is a large in-person component that won't fit with other out-of-town commitments for our family.

  8. It should be no surprise that not for profit organizations have weak data analysis skills, because the need for data is driven by the need for financial control and discipline, which leads to accountability, something that has been lacking in this sector. Say what you like about Patricia Green's lack of personal warmth or engagement, but the need for AAPS now, in a time of funding duress, is a superintendent that understands finances, budgeting, and forecasting. I only hope that the next superintendent has that as their top priority. Until the board and the public understand that, I fear that it is only a matter of a few years before the state provides that financial manager for us.

  9. I was talking to a high school teacher who says the way things are set up now, only remedial and AP/accelerated classes are offered seventh hour, which would certainly limit the percentage of students taking them.

  10. Most of AAPS is operating in as close to a data vacuum as the administration is able to create. Robert Allen's financial acumen was mostly directed at disguising what was being spent and by whom, and preventing any meaningful assessment or measurement of results.

    Similarly, the recent Special Education program review team refused multiple suggestions from the parent participants that some form, almost any form, of student outcome data should be collected. And so we have an Action Plan that uses thin excuses to eliminate Targeted Resource Rooms, which are one of the most successful programs for integrating ASD children into general education classrooms in this state. Same with Reading Intervention teachers, which were a change from the districts' previous use of Reading Recovery. That change was made on budgetary reasons alone; Reading Recovery was a 1 to 1 program, where Reading Intervention is a small-group pull-out program. But the district has been very careful not to collect statistics on the "success" of either program for fear that the very school-involved parents would hear about it and insist on having the most effective teachers for their children.

    We need better training for almost all the teachers and administrators in how to collect and use data. I teach this set of skills to engineers and manufacturing managers professionally, and have been repeatedly ignored when I've volunteered to teach it to school staff.

  11. Info about 7th hour from Pioneer Orchestra program:

    These numbers have been calculated by the Pioneer Music Department using official Pioneer enrollment data:

    In 2012-2013:
    36% of Pioneer Band students take a 7th hour out of necessity to get all of their credits in.
    46% of Pioneer Orchestra students take a 7th hour out of necessity to get all of their credits in.
    47% Pioneer Choir students take a 7th hour out of necessity to get all of the credits in.
    This is 43% of the total music department.

    I don't know what classes are actually taught during the 7th hour, but the ability to have 7 courses is clearly something motivated students rely on to both fulfill their graduation requirements but also enjoy their time in school / be part of some kind of community.