School Board Dumps Data Consultant

Christopher Peak PhotoSchool board members voted to redirect $144,000 away from a series of data-analysis trainings and possibly put the money into instructional supports.

The Board of Education has debated for the past month whether to move ahead on a $144,000 contract with Harvard University’s Data Wise program, which would train administrators and principals throughout New Haven to identify and solve their problems with data. The money would have come from state “Alliance Grant” funds.

On Tuesday night, at a special meeting at Celentano School, they made their final decision, as four board members voted the contract down. Board members argued that the district didn’t have enough data analysts to make an in-depth training worthwhile. They suggested that Central Office administrators with graduate degrees could cover the basics on their own.

Darnell Goldson, Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, Ed Joyner and Jamell Cotto all voted against approving the Data Wise contract, while Mayor Toni Harp abstained.

The board tasked Superintendent Carol Birks with figuring out another state-approved use for the $144,000 in Alliance Grant funds. Generally, that money is are restricted to new programs that would build out pipelines of talent, train educators or support high-needs students in academics, improve the feeling inside schools or invest in technology and school operations.

Data Wise’s copyrighted eight-step protocol was first developed in 2006 to help Boston teachers figure out how to comprehend annual state assessments, and it was implemented more recently in Hartford.

Birks’s former boss, Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, who promoted her to Hartford’s chief of staff in 2017, is the only coach whom Harvard has certified to teach Data Wise in the state.

Several board members said they just didn’t see the need for a data consultant at this point.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Toni Harp questioned the need for Data Wise. She asked if it made sense to offer trainings when the district had no Central Office staff reviewing its stats.

Superintendent Birks responded on Tuesday night that the district is close to hiring a full-time data analyst, paid for with Alliance funds.

But other opposition had fomented since then, especially from Joyner, who’d initially been open to contract.

“The people we pay can’t identify the data they need? It’s something I learned in grad school,” he said. “I don’t understand why anyone who has a six-year in education does not understand research in schools. If you have a doctorate in education, you should know that there’s nothing special in Data Wise.”

Just before taking that vote, the school board members got their own lesson in how data’s currently used within the district. They sat through two number-heavy slideshows — until Jackson-McArthur halted them midway through. She said some of the stats felt like a “brick wall that stopped me in my tracks,” while administrators had clicked right through.

For instance, Jackson-McArthur pointed to two slides showing that 57 percent of third-graders are falling behind on how quickly they’re catching up to grade level in reading and showing that 32 percent of Hillhouse High School freshmen had failed their algebra class.

Jackson-McArthur said those two data points raised big issues, but she said the numbers didn’t explain much themselves. She said they didn’t explain exactly what had gone wrong nor how administrators planned to right it.

“We should not move that quickly beyond that without saying what happened here,” Jackson-McArthur said. “I would appreciate this more … along with a plan or interventions that are in place. We should know what’s happening.”

Goldson too said he felt that the presentations needed more context. Birks responded that she was “just trying to get through” without keeping the board members too late. Goldson suggested that she should make the presentations available before the meeting to have a more focused discussion.

“We don’t need to go through all the information at the meeting,” Goldson said. “The presentation, all it does is give us the numbers; it doesn’t tell us what it means and where we’re going with this stuff.”

Even though the achievement numbers didn’t tell them much, school board members referenced them again later on Tuesday night. Right as they voted the Data Wise contract down, Cotto said that the grant might be better spent on reading supports. Or math, Joyner added.

Goldson, the board’s president, said Birks should offer ideas for how she’d like to reappropriate the $144,000 at the board’s next meeting.

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posted by: LivingInNewHaven on March 13, 2019  7:45am

What a mess. Dr Birks just wanted to get through the meeting? All those children can’t read and no plan given. Who cares about the children? $144k for her ex boss to pocket, to train administrators to read terrible data numbers and no plan to fix it!
Birks need to take her leave and make toom for someone who cares.

posted by: robn on March 13, 2019  8:20am

It wouldn’t hurt to introduce educators to new tools if the training is paid for with grant money, however…that being said…“Data driven (fill in the blank)” is a contemporary buzz phrase but no silver bullet for our problems. Data collection and analysis has been part of professional life arguably since the Enlightenment. Yes our contemporary tools are getting better and yes they can help us identify problems or goals, but in the end, good human judgement is still needed to actualize.

posted by: Paul Wessel on March 13, 2019  8:24am

It’s a pity we don’t have a local world class university with PhD data wonks who have their kids in our schools who could help us over a period of time figure out which data is meaningful and how to use it to manage.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on March 13, 2019  9:42am

Paul Wessel,

Say all of the pieces you mentioned are available (of course, they are), we still would not get the benefit of said person’s expertise, because doing such work for a public school that is not a part of one’s area of study and scholarly research is not how one gets tenure or promotions in Ivy League Universities.

posted by: CamilleS on March 13, 2019  9:59am

I’m a data analyst who supports organizations in working with data. I don’t know anything about Data Wise and agree that this contract sounds fishy, but oh boy is this wrong: “They suggested that Central Office administrators with graduate degrees could cover the basics on their own.”

At the very least, if those folks have training in research, analysis, and reporting, and can do database management with an infrastructure that may or may not actually exist, and are amazing with professional statistics software or at least Excel—they already have jobs to do.

Just because someone has a graduate degree in whatever, that doesn’t mean you can drop the responsibilities of a second specialized job on them.

posted by: wendy1 on March 13, 2019  10:05am

Data Wise and its ilk are a scam created by corporations to get richer off our backs.  Please read Gadfly On The Wall by Steve Singer.  We need to hire back librarians, nurses, counselors and therapists, social workers, and teachers for our children not this crap.

posted by: teachah on March 13, 2019  10:42am

Dr. Joyner, thank you. This was “fishy at best” indeed. There are better uses for the $.

If the money from the Alliance Grant is to “support high-needs students in academics, improve the feeling inside schools or invest in technology and school operations”, here’s a bucket list. I know grants often come with strings attached, but surely some of the things on this list could be remedied…

-Go back to providing high school students with IDs, which were not provided this year. It’s scary to not really know who’s in the building or have a way to confirm identities of teens.
-Rehire bilingual counselors and clerks we lost in last summer’s fiasco.
-Rehire social work interns. The fee for this was nominal and they are sorely missed.
-Most importantly, truly roll out a restorative practices model city-wide. It’s working so well in pockets around New Haven. Look at the successes in San Francisco, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Of course the number one thing that could be done is to put all these coaches and some of the other central office folks back in the classroom teaching to reduce class sizes and increase course offerings/electives. This would not cost a penny, but would have a measurable effect. This year, they HAVE been spending more time in schools and less in Central Office or the other buildings where they had their home bases, which has been a good change. But allow them to pull intervention groups, teach a targeted class or two, or put them back in the classroom in some kind of lead teacher capacity! We need more people doing the heavy lifting and less people consulting with us about it. In my experience, a good 80% of classroom teachers are hard-working and consistently do what’s best for kids, and almost all of the other 20% (lazy, misguided, or otherwise temporarily set back by life, family, illnesses, or what have you) will usually fall in line when everyone around them is setting a constructive, colegial make-it-work tone. We can coach each other.

posted by: teachah on March 13, 2019  11:12am

Paul Wessel, Yale does not have a school of education like Columbia or other Ivies. They’ve never taken our profession seriously enough to imagine that Yale students would desire to go into k-12 public education full time. The program they used to run for a small number of students fell apart some years ago (10-ish?) and they now roll any education work they do into the School of Management. Please see my comments above for my thoughts on how little we need more managers! And we’ll save my opinions about TFA and charter networks for another day.

I don’t mean to belittle the meaningful change that New Haven Promise is having—and it’s my understanding that Yale funds a large part of that. There are also many student groups doing tutoring and the like in our schools. However, it’s a very different thing to actually engage in the enterprise of public education. I doubt Yale’s current crop of PhDs would be of much use to us because there is no School of Education there.

posted by: 1644 on March 13, 2019  12:29pm

SOM has a very active Education Club.  Every year, they sponsor a massive conference at the Omni.
In general, it’s tied to the types of reform groups many here love to despise: Achievement First, Joel Klein, etc.

For undergrads, there’s this:

Teachah is referring to the demise of the CT certification program, which was been supplanted by TFA.

Yale funds 100% of the actual scholarship money distributed by New Haven Promise.  Other organizations, such as the New Haven Foundation and YNHH support the administration of it.  Wells Fargo used to, until New Haven decided it didn’t want to be friends anymore.

posted by: 1644 on March 13, 2019  12:58pm

Okay, the BoE doesn’t need someone from Harvard to tell them that too many of its students are not learning to read or do math.  Could that $144K of Alliance money be applied to summer school programs for those third graders who cannot read well, and or those 9th graders failing algebra?  I am thinking that some three hour long classes with a class of of ten or less might help those kids get to the level they need to be at. Or, just one-on
-one tutoring.  Imagine a curriculum with reading based on local history kids can touch:  Amistad, the English Civil War and Judges Cave, Dr Fred F Smith, Rev. Simeon Jocelyn & James Pennington, Hiram Bingham and his Peruvian expeditions, etc.
  It’s great to see the BoE working together, discussing things respectfully and focusing on student achievement.

posted by: CityYankee on March 13, 2019  4:46pm

Glad to see a NH entity finally say NO to some crazy spending scheme.  We have a 30 million dollar shortfall.  We don’t need to make any other private companies rich off our kids.  Cheshire got rid of a math program that had ads and tracked/data mined their students.  Our community must get together to protect our children.  BRAVO!

posted by: teachah on March 13, 2019  7:30pm

1644, thanks for clarifying about the funding of New Haven Promise. Again, I don’t mean to knock the many good works that are done. However, public education is not a hobby. It’s not something one dabbles in. An “education club” feels a little insulting when compared with the robust academic work going on at other institutions.

It’s a missed opportunity. I imagine there was a moment in the 2000s when Yale could have chosen to build up a school of ed, but instead they closed their certification program and decided folks could just “do TFA”, as though that might be at all equivalent.

For better or for worse, as an institution, Yale has focused its energies elsewhere. TFA does not have a great track record for preparing career educators and is a poor substitute, though of course there are great individuals who do come to us through that program. A handful do stay in public education.

I am aware of the SOM conference, and have been invited a few times. I don’t have a lot of interest in “the industry of education”, their stated focus. I imagine “Data Wise” is exactly the kind of product that’s peddled there.

posted by: Blitheringidiot on March 13, 2019  7:39pm

Here’s what the data says: This year’s kids are just as smart as last year’s kids.

Powerschool can tell you all you need to know. Teachers/admin can see kids’ grades. They can see in which classes kids are struggling and provide supports. They don’t need a data platform. If the whole team works together, it is much stronger than the sum of its members.

Any student who is failing English should get support as this is now a MUST pass to move up a grade.

Any student with more than 10 absences has to have a parent come in. After 15 absences, there must be multiple parent contacts.

Any student failing two or more classes must be given support.

There. That’s what the data is going to tell you.

Now teachers and admins and the whole team must figure out WHAT those supports look like. A great number of kids failing more than 3 classes do NOT have anyone to talk to. That’s where Youth Stat (or something like that) must be brought in. Counseling. Find out what the kid MIGHT want to do with his/her life. Show them the options.

Make sure EVERY PARENT and EVERY STUDENT has access to powerschool.

The data rarely changes. That’s what I’ve learned.

Kids today have the same intelligence as kids 50 years ago (how they use that smarts may be different…but ask a kid from 50 years ago to use a smart phone as a GPS to get to a store and that kid won’t know what to do….but ask a kid from 50 years ago to bake a cake or fix a car and they know….so there’s a difference in HOW they use their smarts).

Things don’t change much. Don’t waste money on something YOU ALREADY HAVE!

But, I’m just a….

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 13, 2019  8:44pm

Birks need to stop ‘supporting her supporters’ and do some real work beside the ‘angry look’ given when things aren’t going her way int the public forum!

Carol’s body language either speaks volumes, or NHI is particularly particularly adept in capturing the truth in their ‘snapshot’.

I pick the latter.

With every photo-op Carol BIrks looks like the scared charlatan that she is!!!!!!

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 13, 2019  9:04pm

I am sorry for my horrible mistype following the Great NHI Commenters Party….

I meant former, not latter, in my critique/......I do have a weird dyslexia sometimes…

(but we all knew the already!)

posted by: Syne on March 14, 2019  7:17am

Shout out to the board members who are questioning how Central Office is spending money!  May they continue to push for less consultants and less data and push to allocate any discretionary money to paying tutors, paraprofessionals, and front line staff who actually work with children in need.

posted by: missthenighthawks on March 14, 2019  1:06pm

The answer to every problem isn’t to hire a consultant.  In my experience, the expertise to figure out what is wrong exists in-house, but isn’t tapped by setting up work groups of the people who are actually doing the work.  Its a sad state of affairs if people who are in-house already, who care about what’s going on, wont spend the time to help because “It’s not my job”.

Meanwhile, a consultant comes in, takes up everyone’s time that could have been put to use trying to solve the problem, produces a report that gets great platitudes in its presentation, and then the report sits on a shelf and collects dust because the affected people aren’t invested in it.

posted by: nhtandcc on March 15, 2019  9:09pm

@Blitheringidiot Are grades data? Yes, but hardly the useful kind. The goal of Data Wise is to train teachers to pinpoint the specific skills that they can target to move students forward. Teachers are overwhelmed with TONS of data each and every day - anyone who says that it should be easy for them to figure out what they need to do with all of it clearly has never taught inside of a classroom. Data Wise provides teachers with a framework they can use to determine what is the most important data, how to act on it, and how to determine if those actions are working.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on March 16, 2019  9:22pm

>>> “The goal of Data Wise is to train teachers to pinpoint the specific skills that they can target to move students forward. “

It reveals something, nhtandcc, that you don’t think these professionals already have those skills, nor a personal awareness of students’ strengths and struggles from direct daily observation.

Anyone interested in protecting student data might like this article:

“Most vendors don’t really care about data deletion, because they only want to monetize de-identified data, which most policies allow for unlimited use.”

posted by: nhtandcc on March 16, 2019  9:47pm

@ Jill_the_Pill Have you taught in a K-12 classroom before? If not, you’re confirming my point. Like I said, teachers are bombarded with tons of data points each day. I never said that teachers don’t have the skills, because I think they do. However, teachers have to meet a lot of demands, one of which is responding to data. As a result, it doesn’t always happen to the extent at which it needs to. Data Wise provides the structure through which teachers can apply the skills they have efficiently while also balancing every other task and responsibility that they have.

This is just another example of the general public thinking they know what teachers do and how they do it just because they went through the K-12 education system. I say this as a former NHPS teacher and current school administrator with a master’s degree in education. Data Wise changed the way that I looked at and interacted with data. It provided me with concrete steps to take to move students forward. We need that in our schools.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on March 17, 2019  11:21am

>>> “Have you taught in a K-12 classroom before?”

I taught high school many years ago, before the data deluge.  Now I teach at the college level, where it is not really an issue.  I teach a technical topic, with a sizable component of data analysis and statistics.

>>> “This is just another example of the general public thinking they know what teachers do and how they do it”

Let’s turn that back around at you in regard to data analysis: an amateur with a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Dabblers in statistics can cause real harm.  By making it overly simplistic, data analytics for education can wildly misrepresent correlations, uncertainty, and inference.  Just a few weeks ago, we saw the publication of charts reporting the percentage of total suspensions by race rather than the rate, normalized by the population of each race in the district. 

I teach my students to avoid common pitfalls like the ecological fallacy and aggregation bias.  Are those familiar to you, nhtandcc, as you shift the scale of analysis from the student to the classroom to the school to the district and back?