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Data Geeks Set Sights On School Reform

by Thomas MacMillan | Nov 13, 2012 12:30 pm

(9) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Schools, School Reform

With a few taps on an iPad, a New Haven principal may soon determine if her teachers are reaching 9th-grade C-student girls as well as 10th-grade boys who get As.

That’s the possibility presented by three fresh-faced entrepreneurial undergrads at Yale.

Panorama Education, their burgeoning new educational survey company, is poised to win the contract to conduct the next “school climate” survey for the Board of Ed.

Members of the Board of Ed’s Administration/Finance Committee this week were impressed by an iPad-augmented presentation on Panorama’s services. They recommended that the Board of Ed approve Panorama’s bid. The full board will vote on the matter on Tuesday night.

Panorama also emerged as the “clear favorite” of the school survey committee, said Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries.

As part of citywide school reform efforts, the Board of Ed (BOE) has for three years conducted school climate surveys. The school system gathers data on how students, parents, and teachers perceive their school with regard to factors like safety, collaboration, and engagement.

The intention is to determine areas of strength and weakness to guide reform efforts in each school. It’s part of a strategy of using data to help measure and augment the city’s ambitious school-reform drive.

Panorama will “take us to the next level,” BOE staffer Carolyn Ross-Lee (at center in top photo) told committee members at their meeting this past Monday night. She said Panorama offers a number of benefits over previous survey companies. She pulled out an iPad to demonstrate how Panorama presents survey data in an interactive, secure, web-based interface. As she tapped the screen, colorful bar graphs popped up under her fingers.

Click here to tap through the interface yourself, using publicly available data from a California school system Panorama has worked with.

What’s more, Panorama’s bid came in far lower than the nearly $100,000 the BOE spent to conduct the surveys this year, Ross-Lee said. Panorama’s bid is for between $52,000 and $60,000, depending on which features the BOE chooses.

The surveys are usually conducted in January, with the results available in May. In the intervening months, Board of Ed staff labor to crunch all the numbers and produce reports.

Aaron Feuer, Panorama’s CEO, said his company can have data available online in a customized web interface within just a couple of days after collecting surveys.

“They have they seem to have the ability to enable us to do more to work more quickly to produce reports on our surveys and to provide better and clearer information to all of our differet stakeholders,” Harries said later.

“I don’t see any downside,” Michael Nast (at right in top photo), one of two members of the Administration/Finance Committee, said at Monday’s meeting.

Elizabeth Torres (at left), the other member, said she likes the fact that Panorama is a local company.

Ross-Lee predicted that Panorama would be easily available to the Board of Ed for customer support. She described the company as young and “hungry,” but with “thick resumes.”

697 Schools, 6 States

Feuer (pictured), Panorama’s 21-year-old CEO, said he has had to deal with some skepticism about his youth as he has built up his company over the last year. He said he had to convince one prospective client that he’s not storing Panorama’s servers in his dorm room. He’s not. Panorama taps into massive cloud-based servers to do its number-crunching.

And the company headquarters are not in a dormitory, Feuer said. Panorama recently moved from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute on Whitney Avenue to Yale Entrepreneurial Society at the corner of Elm and York streets. On a recent snowy afternoon, Feuer and two co-founders sat down at the Au Bon Pain across the street and shared the Panorama creation story.

When he was in high school in Los Angeles, Feuer served on California’s statewide student council, which meant he got to travel around the state visiting different schools and trying to figure out how to improve them. He found that student surveys helped everyone, he said. When students were able to give their teachers feedback they were more engaged, and the teachers liked it too.

The problem, Feuer found, is that schools tend not to have the technology to do such surveys quickly and easily. During his freshman year at Yale, Feuer got money from the university to build a computer system to crunch survey data and create reports. He got some student councils in California to use the new system, but quickly found that it wasn’t very effective without buy-in from teachers and parents.

Feuer picked up the project again this school year. He said he was inspired in part by a Gates Foundation-funded report showing that school surveys are an essential part of improving education, and by a realization that school districts were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct surveys. He figured he could do it cheaper and better. He formed Panorama with three other Yale undergrads, all seniors, all 21-years-old.

In April, Panorama landed its first client: The La CaƱada Unified School District in California. In just the few months since, business has exploded, spurred mainly by a contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Panorama is now working with 697 different schools in six states, Feuer said.

In Connecticut, Teach For America has hired Panorama to survey students about its teachers three times a year. The company is also working with the state, which is piloting a new teacher-evaluation system.

It’s a been a matter of being at the right place at the right time, with the right technology, Feuer said. And good luck, he added.

Cloud Tapping

Part of Panorama’s good timing is that it’s entering a field where there is not a lot of competition. In LA for example, no other company existed that could do what Panorama does, Feuer said. “No one else does reports like this for teachers. No one else does this at all.”

Panorama takes advantage of a number of technological advancements to both cut costs and provide services others don’t offer, Feuer said.

For example, the traditional customized fill-in-the-bubble sheets used by many surveys can cost several dollars per page. “We use plain white paper,” Feuer said. Panorama’s survey forms are printed out on regular paper. The completed surveys are scanned in as PDFs (pictured) that can be digitally analyzed for question responses. It doesn’t matter if the responder uses a number-two pencil, a pen, or a highlighter or even if they fill in the bubble with an “x” or a check mark..

Survey responders can also take the surveys by computer and, in another Panorama innovation, by mobile phone. Panorama will use a robocall system to remind parents who haven’t completed the survey to do so. That hasn’t been done before in New Haven, Feuer said.

To process all the gathered data, Panorama taps into Amazon’s massive cloud-based computing service. There’s no need for Panorama to have its own bank of servers, Feuer said. It can access as much computing power as it needs on the cloud.

Once the surveys are all in, Panorama will be able to turn around the data in a matter of days, producing PDF and interactive online reports for the Board of Ed, Feuer said. That’s a change from past years, when school system staff have spent months crunching data to produce their own reports, according to Harries.

“We’ve had to do a lot of work to create the reports,” Harries said. It has taken a lot of time and effort to put the information into a more “digestible” format.

Panorama’s reports will be available online to administrators and to the general public. Harries said the school district will continue its commitment to “a high degree of transparency” by much of the data available to the public.

Previously, the Board of Ed has contracted with “a more conventional research shop” to do the surveys, a company that’s not designed to be as “public-facing” as Panorama, Harries said. “These guys offer a specialized service geared exactly” toward schools, he said.

Silver, Sabermetrics, Satisfaction

Unlike those stodgy “conventional research shops,” Feuer and his fellow 21-year-old colleagues have hardly known a world without Google and Wikipedia. They’ve grown up with seemingly infinite streams of data available on demand in beautiful, interactive packages. That’s the sensibility and the expectation that they are bringing to the field of public education surveying. They’re looking to to upend the industry the way New York Times polling whiz Nate Silver confounded political pundits during the recent presidential election.

Silver used statistics to glean previously unknown insights from stacks of political polls. He condensed massive amounts of polling data into clear, interactive, and ultimately spot-on information about the state of the race. The New York Times then presented the information in an elegant, interactive website, essentially making conventional political prognosticators obsolete.

“What The New York Times does for data, if we can do that for schools ...” Feuer said. Panorama aims to present complex information in a beautiful and useful way, just like Silver’s blog on the Times website.

“This is our Nate Silver on the team,” Feuer said, pointing to Xan Tanner (pictured), Panorama’s director of analytics and research. A religious studies major from Boulder, Tanner admits to being a big fan of Silver, who got his start analyzing baseball stats. During his time at Yale, Tanner has been doing statistical work for the university’s basketball team, using sabermetrics on the fly during games to “optimize the roster” for victory.

Feuer and Tanner, along with marketing director David Carel, are all graduating seniors. They said their professors have all been very understanding about their sudden absorption into a burgeoning business. “Luckily we were all good students for the first three years,” Tanner said.

Panorama has a total of seven employees and has begun to bring in some money, although Feuer, Tanner, and Carel are not yet taking salaries. The current plan is to keep the company in New Haven after graduation, and continue to expand. Asked about Higher One, another Yale start-up that’s found great success bringing computing power to education, Feuer said he would hope Panorama follows its trajectory.

“We’ve had investment offers,” Feuer said. “We’re enjoying bootstrapping so far.”

The company has so far been funded by a $25,000 grant from Yale and a $25,000 prize from a contest held by the university.

While Panorama’s services could be applied to other fields, Feuer said he’s committed to focusing on education. It just wouldn’t be very satisfying to optimize, say, customer satisfaction surveys for the airline industry, he said.

“We could spend a lifetime fixing education,” he said. “There are 15,000 school districts to go in this country.”

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posted by: anonymous on November 13, 2012  6:48pm

They will be selected if they donate to DStefano 2013.

posted by: NHteacher on November 13, 2012  9:41pm

I wish these young entrepeneurs success. I am sure they will create some useful tools, and I applaud them for choosing to support schools rather than, say, airlines.

However, I take offense at the quote above. “We could spend a lifetime fixing education”? I have to assume that his quote was taken out of context. He seems far too bright to think that a somewhat useful computer application could make even a modest dent.

Our culture has become obsessed with data and with tech bells and whistles. Assessment and data gathering are not actually instruction.  Contrary to popular belief, we know our students, our schools, and our communities quite well.  We don’t need more data. We need to turn away from all of this stuff that only looks like accountability, and back towards genuine efforts to reduce poverty, build meaningful school community, teach meaningful curricula, and relentlessly focus on children as individuals. Then we might begin to “fix education”.

I hope the city chooses to invest in technology that will actually be in children’s hands before this sort of thing. We don’t have ipads to scan paper surveys with! My goodness, the newest computers in the school where I teach are from 2006.

posted by: swatty on November 13, 2012  11:25pm

what the cuss?

my question is whatever happened to a teacher knowing his/her students? “With a few taps on an ipad…”

please. put a face on it people. the deeper we go into data the cloudier (SIC!) it gets.

The F generation (facebook) will be the end to us all!

posted by: Brutus2011 on November 13, 2012  11:32pm

to “NHteacher:”

You are absolutely correct in your assertion re: teachers know what is happening at ground zero, and don’t need a manager with an iPad to look over their shoulders while they use their prep periods buying copy paper to use in schools where all the copiers are broken except for the one outside the principal’s office.

You would think that number-crunching NHPS management would be up on complexity theory and how change is often affected from below and not from above.

And, therefore the most logical, and rational, approach might be to “starve” the management beast to nourish the classroom instead of impoverishing those at the classroom level that the schools are supposed to serve.

This article is about more resources being put into places other than the classroom. For the life of me, why don’t our citizens see irrationality of this? Of course, it is great for a mayoral campaign’s donations or to buy loyalty but it is death for our students.

Are there so many patronage jobs that everyone just lets our kids go down the tubes while management hires more staff and consultants to analyze data? And nothing changes?

It really is about the managers and not about the kids.

Kids First. Sounds great. Means nothing.

Time to flip the switch.

posted by: Jim75 on November 14, 2012  5:17am

If it is all about the kids—should we not know what the kids think?

Who could be afraid of data and student feedback?

posted by: NHteacher on November 14, 2012  5:07pm

The climate surveys are useful, and in many ways provide more valuable data than the CMTs do.

However, my frustration lies in the way we sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees—more data in and of itself does not lead to better instruction. It is frustrating to see excitement over the latest data craze that purports to “fix our problems” when our community really needs to be having some serious, substantial discussion about how we allocate resources.

posted by: anonymous on November 14, 2012  5:25pm

NH Teacher is right. The surveys are a nice-to-have, but it’s very telling that whoever organizes them does not ask about the real reasons why students are not achieving in their schools (reasons which have very little to do with the school itself). Those questions are probably thought of as too sensitive.

posted by: HhE on November 14, 2012  11:29pm

Using technology to save money is good.

The real issue is how surveys are written, answered, and most of all used.

I worked at a high school that when it got its climate survey back, the administration was all over how teacher communication was a weak point—ignoring the far lower score they received.  We burned half a faculty meeting debating the instrument, the tendency for self selection (over a true random sample), and much more, without ever asking “What is it that parents really want, and how could we find out?”

Say, by asking them.

posted by: Sonja L on November 16, 2012  2:12pm

Students with disabilities and their issues are not mentioned in these surveys.  California state used to provide “enrollment by disability type” information for every school, but after Gov. Schwarzenegger’s board removed that (they were top-heavy with charter interests who did not enroll those students) data piece, it’s been impossible to have it reinstated. 

We cannot determine the “climate” of a school without data regarding the special education population.  If they have few or none - we know they don’t “encourage” enrollment of those students.  They call it “counseling out” - we call it “discrimination”. 

Add data about students with disabilities, services provided for them and we’ll have some meaningful information.

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