NANCY KAFFER: In search of good schools, and drowning in data

By NANCY KAFFER
Guest Columnist

Good news, Michigan parents struggling to choose a K-12 school:

The state just launched a rating index dashboard featuring eight component indices that show how every Michigan school is progressing toward its academic goals (gauged through testing), improving its academic performance (also determined through testing), what percentage of students took those tests, how many are chronically absent, how English language learners are faring, what percentage of high school students take advanced courses, graduate and go to college — all of which yields a score somewhere between 1 and 100. (My son’s school is a 61.05. Ouch.)

Simple, eh?

Education policy folks collect and publish a lot of data.

It’s a really useful thing to do — data show how any school system is performing, how it serves students from different backgrounds, and when policy should change to produce better results.

But there’s also a presumption that data will help parents make better school choices, and a corollary that accountability — the data-based judgments parents make about each school’s quality — will force poorer performing schools to improve.

In theory, it’s a great idea: the power of the free market harnessed to hard data.

In practice? Parents want to send their kids to great schools. But what a parent believes makes a school great may have less to do with test-score and graduation-rate data than reputation and word-of-mouth.

So many choices

School enrollment is competitive in Michigan, and the proliferation of charters and schools-of-choice (in which school districts offer admission to students residing in an adjacent districts) gives parents the options to move children around without having to relocate the family home.

Mark Fisk, a partner at Lansing-based Byrum & Fisk Communications, says data can support or diminish a district’s reputation, but adds that reputation is built on more than data alone.

“Test scores are not top of mind for parents,” says Fisk, who has run marketing campaigns for multiple K-12 school districts. “I think there is an emotional connection people make with a district, its brand, its reputation. If they have a great graduation rate and high test sores, it becomes a validation for that emotional connection; if the district has test scores that are middle-of-the-road, they’ll look past that.”

Fisk says metrics like graduation and college enrollment rates are can be significant, but what really matters is stories — narratives about what a district is doing right, or what makes it different from other districts.

That could be a core of employees with special skills, an arts or music program, or a successful sports team. And those narratives are especially powerful when they’re related by someone the parent knows.

That’s what a 2017 survey of parents who use school-choice options commissioned by the right-leaning Mackinac Center found. The most important factor in decision-making, cited by 31 percent of those surveyed, were conversations with other parents. Another 27.3 percent put a premium on unspecified reasons not listed among the survey options. Just 18.3 percent said data from school performance website was a factor.

Abundant data, under-utilized

There are about 1.5 million school-aged children with at least 3 million parents or primary caregivers in Michigan. But the state counted only 339,198 unique visitors to its MISchoolData.org website in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2017, the site’s first full year of operation, and those visitors included policymakers, reporters and school district officials

“We often are measuring and communicating information of marginal value to parents and failing to deliver information of greater value,” said Timothy Daly, a founding partner of EdNavigator, a New Orleans-based firm that guides parents through that city’s school selection process.

Absent from nearly all data collections are feedback from parents and students themselves, Daly said.

“If I went online to buy a bicycle, I would be able to find professional reviews and consumer reviews,” he said. “If went online for schools, I would find a few internet comments tucked on some website somewhere, but I wouldn’t find anything significant with a good sample size.

“Students are really good judges of instruction, so why wouldn’t we ask: Do you feel safe at school? Do you feel like you are being challenged? Do you feel like you’re able to give your best performance every day?” Daly says.

“Compare that to a measure of chronic absenteeism,” he adds, “and what’s more useful to a parent?”

Daly says data can change people’s minds, but only in the absence of a pre-existing connection. “If you’re invested in the narrative around that district, if you work there or you went there, you may try to justify the choice, he says.”

And all of that may take a backseat to pragmatic concerns like the availability of transportation, a school’s proximity to a parent’s work ,or the school’s aftercare options.

So what about all these data?

“You can’t just give the data, you have to give the takeaway,” said Samantha Olivieri, chief strategy officer of the school data site GreatSchools.org. “We’ll say ‘This is concerning’ or ‘This is promising,’ but we need to do the interpretation, help parents put it in context. I can see what that result is, but is that any good? How does this school result compare to other schools in my district, or to schools that serve a similar student population?”

Originally conceived as an A-F grading system, the state’s new eight-metric dashboard evolved after a multi-year debate that has consumed untold hours at the state Board of Education and in the state Legislature, and garnered input from critics who found the original proposal, too draconian, too lax or too reductive.

But what a parent wants to know is what kind of place a school is. Can kids pass the state’s tests? Sure, that’s good to know. But what’s important to me, and other parents, is how the teachers interact with kids. Whether there’s help for students who fall behind, and how they’ll be brought up to par. If the school feels safe and comfortable, the kind of place where a child can be his best self.

Or, you know, a 61.05.

Nancy Kaffer is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. You can contact her at nkaffer@freepress.com.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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