Friday, October 2, 2009

This is Transparency? This is Data-Driven Education Policy?

A letter to parents was in my kids’ backpacks this week. It’s about whether teachers at their school and in their classrooms meet the No Child Left Behind Act’s standards for a qualified teacher. Being a data nerd, I was eager to see the statistics for our school, and to compare them to those for schools in the rest of the district, state and nation.

Did I get the statistics that would let me see whether my kids are taught by qualified teachers? No. Here is the letter:

“The Ann Arbor Public Schools is proud of its faculty and staff. Approximately three quarters of our teaching staff have a masters degree or higher. The District operates an extensive Professional Development program and ALL new four-year probationary teachers receive a full three years of mentoring from an experienced Ann Arbor teacher.

The parents of a student in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), have the right to know the professional qualifications of their child’s teachers. Under NCLB you are entitled to know the following information about your child’s classroom teachers:

  • Whether the State of Michigan has certified the teacher for the grades/subjects he or she teaches;
  • Whether the teacher is teaching under an "emergency permit" or other "provisional status" by which the state certification criteria have been waived;
  • The teacher's college major and advanced degrees, if any, by subject;
  • Whether any instructional aides or similar paraprofessionals provide services to your child and, if so, the paraprofessional's qualification.

If you would like to receive this information, please submit written requests to Administrative and Human Resource Services, 2555 South State Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48104, ATTN: NCLB Inquiries. A minimum of ten (10) business days will be required to prepare the response

Thank you very much for your cooperation.”

Written request? Ten business days? This is no way to keep parents informed about schools, the purpose of the NCLB requirement. The process reminds me of a Freedom of Information Act request. As a parent, I would feel like I was bothering/attacking/impugning the district were I to make such a request (and I am no shrinking violet). I am guessing that very few parents ask for these data, which means that this aspect of NCLB is not working.

Why not put information about teacher qualifications on the web, where parents can read it, or at least in the letter itself? I can think of two possible explanations.

1) They have the information readily available. But, they do not want parents to have this information. Maybe because parents might protest the level or distribution of qualified teachers in the district? That explanation does not put the school district in a flattering light.


2) They do not have the information readily available. It is not in machine-readable format, or is lodged in some clunky database that only one person can figure out how to use, so generating school- and classroom-specific reports on teacher qualifications is time-consuming and difficult. This explanation is equally disturbing to the one above, because it means that the district is not using information about teacher qualifications as it deploys teachers across schools, makes hiring decisions, and examines patterns in student achievement! Yikes!

Sure is interesting to see how the intent of Congress actually plays out in school districts.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Progress on Reforming Federal Aid

While the nation has been storming and heckling and angst-ing over health insurance reform, there has been a productive conversation and quiet, steady progress toward reforming the federal student aid system.

The direction of reform takes is consistent with the recommendations made by the College Board’s Rethinking Student Aid task force, of which I am a member. My work with Judy Scott-Clayton (newly minted Harvard PhD, now an assistant professor at Columbia) has also influenced the conversation.

Developments that make this policy wonk’s heart twitter with happiness:

  • The IRS has agreed to pass tax data of aid applicants to the Department of Education (ED), thereby allowing for the automatic pre-filling of the dreaded Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) with tax return data already collected by the feds. Getting IRS to play nice with ED was a major barrier to student aid reform. Kudos to all who nudged, cajoled and threatened the federal bureaucracy into cooperating with itself!
  • House and Senate committees are working on bills that remove from the aid formula (almost!) all data items that don’t already reside in the IRS data files. Should they (as I recommend) get rid of all the non-tax data items, this allows for an application-free aid system. Anything short of that and we are stuck with an application, albeit a shortened one.
  • ED has substantially improved the interface and skip logic of the Web FAFSA. This makes life simpler for those students who fill out the form online. The paper FAFSA is still pretty horrifying, however, and that is the form that matters for those who do not have access to broadband at home (hint: poor people).
  • This week, Joe Biden chaired a White House Middle Class Task Force meeting at Syracuse University on barriers to college entry and completion. The Task Force also released a report that describes the Obama administration’s goals for restructuring student aid, while the Council of Economic Advisers and National Economic Council released a report on the same topic.

So exciting to see our research and analysis shaping the path of policy in DC. Simplification has been a topic in which conservatives and liberals have found common ground. Knock on wood that this cooperation continues.