Data Deal Divides Mayor, Superintendent

Mayor Toni Harp joined her sometime critics Monday night in questioning the schools superintendent’s request for a $144,000 data consulting contract at a time of fiscal belt-tightening.

She and the critics, from a parent advocacy group called NHPS Advocates, offered different reasons for opposing the consultancy at Monday night’s meeting in the Celentano School cafeteria: Mayor Harp (who earlier in the day raised questions about schools Superintendent Carol Birks’ budget projections) argued the money for the contract would be better spent on hiring a centralized data team. NHPS Advocates rejected the proposal altogether along with the underlying notion that student learning could be reduced to numbers.

The arguments from both sides sank the consultancy contract — at least temporarily.

The Board of Education voted to table the $144,000 contract with Harvard University’s Data Wise program. Darnell Goldson, the board’s president, said that the contract should go back through the Finance & Operations Committee for a second look before it returns to the full board in two weeks. The action took place as Superintendent Birks has warned of looming budget cuts such as school closings and teacher-position slashes.

Under the proposed contract, The Harvard Data Wise Project, which has been around since 2006, would train administrators and principals throughout New Haven in how to identify and solve problems with data, rather than letting the numbers excuse, confuse or mislead educators, Deputy Superintendent Ivelise Velazquez said.

“In a nutshell, it’s not making the decisions and then finding the data to support what you’re doing; it’s the other way around,” Velazquez explained to the Finance & Operations Committee last week. “It’s really starting with what are the issues and problems that we see, very systematically, and then using the data to uncover what we should be doing best.

“In places where there have been years of reform or places where you have put plans in place, and you’re getting the same result —  which, when we look at our overall scores, it’s been like that, primarily —  maybe then it isn’t that we all haven’t been working so hard and dedicating resources to this,” Velazquez continued. “It could be that our decision-making has been faulty. That’s really what’s at the heart of this: looking at data to make better decisions.”

Data Wise’s copyrighted eight-step protocol, which tells administrators to start by “organizing for collaborative work,” progress through “developing an action plan,” and finish off by “acting and assessing,” was first developed to help Boston teachers figure out how to comprehend annual state assessments.

It has since taken off among workplace coaches who have applied its lessons to run snappier meetings.

Harvard now offers a self-paced course on Data Wise for free online. Superintendent Carol Birks suggested the Board of Ed members should watch the video, near the end of their three-hour meeting on Monday — just before they tabled the agreement.

Velazquez added that Hartford had implemented the Data Wise program recently. 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 Connecticut.

Team-Building Exercises

According to the proposed contract, Harvard would have piloted the Data Wise program for the superintendent’s executive team, the curriculum supervisors and the staff at two school sites, Clinton Avenue and Engineering & Science University Magnet School.

In total, Data Wise would have interfaced with New Haven’s staff for only 31 hours, most of it through virtual meetings and webinars, according to the proposed scope of services. The executive team would attend a three-hour on-site retreat, followed up by 10 hour-and-a-half meetings with the individual teams.

In the end, New Haven’s own staff would put on a five-day workshop this summer for all principals and school-based teams, with guidance from the Data Wise coaches.

Couldn’t the superintendent have just assigned the online course as homework for school principals instead?

Birks told the Independent that Data Wise would be a team-building exercise, allowing teams to talk through their numbers at the same time it provided a district-wide language for incorporating data into decision-making.

“We’re in a learning organization. We can’t just say, ‘Do this,’ when people have not had the expertise,” Birks said last week. “Right now we have such variability across the district, as to our common language about ‘learner-centered problems’ and how we’re going to address them. [With Data Wise] we’re all talking the same language about data, about how we’re looking at students’ work.”

Meanwhile, the district has already invested $57,000 this school year in another data-training program, which is also being rolled out at two schools. ACES, the state-designated training center for the region, is giving the administrators at James Hillhouse and Fair Haven a primer on data-driven decision-making, as they review their curriculum and instruction.

Harp: Too Soon?

 

After hearing the presentation, Mayor Harp said she thought that the district was getting ahead of itself. She said she worried that New Haven hadn’t developed the infrastructure to make the training worthwhile yet. What was the point of bringing in a consultant to talk about how to use data more effectively, Harp asked, if the district isn’t really using data to begin with?

Currently, only one administrator in the central office is tasked with analyzing the district’s data: Michele Sherban, the supervisor of research, assessment and student information.

But even that task goes beyond what’s actually in her job description, Birks said, as Sherban is primarily focused on administering tests, filing grant reports and monitoring performance evaluations, not running the numbers to figure out what to change.

That lack of central office personnel puts New Haven behind other districts in the state, Birks said. “In most [school] systems, you have four or five people,” she said. Birks added that she’s been trying to hire a data analyst, but so far none of the applicants have had the right qualifications.

Mayor Harp said that, because of that lack of personnel, she wasn’t sure if a training session was the right investment. Given the “inadequate” and “shaky foundation,” Harp said that the district might not need such an “elaborate” training.

“The way in which we handle data currently really needs a lot of help. I don’t blame people for having concerns about data, because when we get it, it’s not completely filled out to the point that it’s really almost unusable,” Harp said. “Why does that matter? Because often times we are doing things that are cutting-edge in our district, but we can’t prove it. We don’t have the data that shows it.”

Harp said that she felt “very uncomfortable” voting for the $144,000 consultants if the money could instead be used to hire a data analyst who could work with Sherban. She said she also wanted to know how Birks planned to sustain the training with a steady source of funds.

Her questioning came on the same day that she took a similarly skeptical line about Superintendent Birks’ financial projections for the upcoming year’s budget, and the need to eliminate 172 teaching positions without a $10 million boost in state aid. Harp pointedly questioned Birks’ math during an appearance on her weekly “Mayor Monday” program on WNHH FM. (You can find the episode here. The portion about Birks’ projections begins around the 8-minute mark.)

NHPS Advocates: More Than Numbers

Other parents from NHPS Advocates who testified on Monday night argued that there is more to student learning than the numbers alone could show.

Sarah Miller, a parent at Columbus Family Academy, said that data could certainly be used to inform decision-making, as she said discipline stats had done at a recent board meeting in showing the significant racial disparities that are keeping black boys out of school. But she warned that it shouldn’t take a place as “the center of everything.”

“In my experience, there is already a lot of time in schools and at Board of Education meetings invested in discussing and analyzing data. [At school meetings] leadership is barely discussed, if at all. There just isn’t time given all the data that has to be reviewed,” Miller said. “The relevance of these exercises depends on whether the data in question is worth it, the independence and accuracy of its analysis and whether the people involved are operating together on a deeper set of shared values about human development. I can’t tell you if these things are true in my children’s school or our district, because we don’t talk about them. We’re too busy talking about data.

“When data becomes the driving factor in decision-making about our children’s learning, as is effectively being proposed with Data Wise, some critical elements take a backseat, including brain science, child development, research on learning and our educators’ own ideas and direct experience,” Miller went on. “It’s important to ask whether this is how we want to invest not just our money, but time and energy when data is always on the table already and there are so many elements critical to when, why and how well our kids learn that seem all but ignored in our present decision-making.”

Even if members of NHPS Advocates accepted Data Wise’s premise, Jill Kelly, a parent at ESUMS, wanted to know if the program was actually effective. She asked if Hartford’s test scores improved after it implemented the program.

In fact, their numbers dipped, and Hartford students are still scoring lower in reading proficiency than they were three school years ago after Data Wise was first rolled out.

Ultimately, at the end of Monday’s discussion, Goldson said that he didn’t think there were enough votes for the contract to pass. A few members, including Goldson himself, didn’t explain why.

Joseph Rodriguez, the vice-chair of the Finance & Operations Committee, who had initially put the contract to the board for a vote without any recommendation, asked for it to be tabled. The motion automatically cut discussion short before it passed unanimously.

The Board of Ed also unanimously voted to approve a $132,500 curriculum audit by Curriculum Solutions, the first comprehensive look at what’s being taught in the school system in decades.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 26, 2019  10:07am

Mayor Toni Harp joined her sometime critics Monday night in questioning the schools superintendent’s request for a $144,000 data consulting contract at a time of fiscal belt-tightening.

If this was not a election year.I bet it would have pass.

posted by: 1644 on February 26, 2019  11:25am

Considering the BoE is currently running a deficit of about $10 million, how would the BoE fund these contracts?

posted by: jeffrey a on February 26, 2019  11:30am

I find it extremely disturbing that when you divide the cost, $144,000 by the 31 hours given in the article that Data Wise is charging that amounts to $ 4,645 per hour. I for one, find that per hour cost totally unacceptable given there is talk of teacher layoffs.

posted by: NewHaven1946 on February 26, 2019  11:38am

I am glad that we decided not to spend $144,000 on a data consultant, but we still agreed to spend $132,000 on a curriculum audit- in spite of the fact that we spend nearly $1,000,000/ year on curriculum supervisors.  It is astonishing to me to admit that after investing so much in curricular leadership, including millions more on teachers writing curriculum, and curricular materials, that we have no idea what curricula are being taught in schools.  2 teachers who could be paid for with this money, may be laid off this summer.  The standard for the board and for the public should be strong evidence that this audit will produce better results for students than 2 teachers would.  If that evidence exists, it was not presented last night, and some pretty bold statements about our lack of an audit were taken at face value.  They also should have been questioned.

posted by: CatDude on February 26, 2019  12:20pm

Were Mayor Harp’s children educated in the New Haven Public School system?

posted by: darnell on February 26, 2019  12:56pm

NewHaven1946

If you believe Board members did not receive all the information necessary to make an informed decision, please forward whatever info you may have to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Thanks -/ Darnell Goldson

posted by: formerNHIT on February 26, 2019  1:00pm

I am happy to see it was not approved.  However in what fictional reality is this Superintendent in?  How does it make good sense to spend this kind of money when you might be laying off people.. especially teachers?

This is one example of why the proposed plan at state to combine school districts for communities of 40k or less won’t be easily approved.  All parents and constituents need to do is look how these large districts spend their money.. create more of them and more money will be misspent.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on February 26, 2019  1:34pm

The New Haven Public Schools has been dealing with data for decades. Surely by now there should be plenty of data experts on staff.
The general public is very concerned about the BOE deficit, board expenditures and apparent board waste and unwise use of public funds.
In the central offices of the NHPS administration, collectively, there are people with more degrees than several thermometers. Why does the NHPS rely so heavily and frequently on outside private contractors to do so much of the work in running our public schools?
We have scores of professionally trained administrators at Gateway. So many that some of them can hide, come in late, leave early, and go undetected for extended time periods.
So many that some administrative positions are totally unnecessary, repetitive or redundant. So many, that some of the creative titles assigned to several of them appear outright ludicrous or incomprehensible. If some of the job descriptions were explained to the average resident, they could not comprehend their duties.
It is quite difficult to understand things that do not make sense.
Do we want to find ways to cut the school deficit and save some money? Here are some recommendations.
Cut top administrative staff, eliminate duplication of duties, consolidate some of those jobs, considerably condense the broadened bureaucracy, and freeze hiring outside contractors to do work that administrators on staff should be able to do.
When a school system really believes in KIDS FIRST, it will make those top cuts before it ever considers closing schools, laying off teachers, counselors librarians, and paraprofessionals, and cutting supplies and resources needed by students and teachers. Sacrifice from the top down, not the bottom up as the practice has been.
The public had been told that some board members wanted the cuts to be made as far from the classrooms as possible.
NHPS and the board must understand that the heart of education is in every classroom, not Gateway Center!

posted by: darnell on February 26, 2019  2:01pm

formerNHIT,

Seems to me that the bird did its job and did not misspend these funds. When we do our jobs and sometimes stop these expenditures or hires from occurring, we are often accused of micromanaging. Would you put this decision in that category? Or would that be the description of our activities only when we are approving items you want?

posted by: formerNHIT on February 26, 2019  2:22pm

darnell:

In this instance the board did its job and did that job it well.  This is why the board exists.  However, my concern is simply that the leadership below the board seems to not be in line with the seriousness of the budget situation.  There is a pretty big delta and yes that is in part due to the state.  Even asking for something like this when teachers may be let go is not a good sign.

Just an opinion from an average person..

posted by: FacChec on February 26, 2019  3:01pm

Harp and the BOE have taken a simple proposal and made it difficult to analyze and understand. Let us try to unpack this mess.“Harvard would have piloted the Data Wise program for the superintendent’s executive team, the curriculum supervisors and the staff at two school sites, Clinton Avenue and Engineering & Science University Magnet School. Harp said that she felt “very uncomfortable” voting for the $144,000 consultants if the money could instead be used to hire a data analyst who could work with Sherban.  Ok, looks a $144K contract to be awarded to,” 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 Connecticut.” Tores-Rodriquez also supported Birks for Superintendent. “Currently, only one administrator in the central office is tasked with analyzing the district’s data: Michele Sherban, the supervisor of research, assessment and student information.” Harp: “What was the point of bringing in a consultant to talk about how to use data more effectively, if the district isn’t really using data to begin with? What really? “Harp: “said that she felt “very uncomfortable” voting for the $144,000 consultants if the money could instead be used to hire a data analyst who could work with Sherban. She said she also wanted to know how Birks planned to sustain the training with a steady source of funds.” Note: Why would New Haven Hire a data analyst when the analyst function would only occur one time and the BOE would be left paying a salary, health care benefits, vacation pay, as well as all the other perks the job commands.
Finally summed up by Sarah Miller: ““When data becomes the driving factor in decision-making about our children’s learning, as is effectively being proposed with Data Wise, some critical elements take a backseat, including brain science, child development, research on learning and our educators’ own ideas.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 26, 2019  3:25pm

I oppose this contract, but to be fair—the funding for it comes from the Alliance Grant, not the general fund, so it can’t be used for regular, permanent teachers. 

The Alliance Grant is a terrible way to make up the state funding deficit.  They send about $13 million with strings attached.  Probably the thinking was to prevent districts from wasting the money on frivolous things like toilet paper, calculators, and kickballs.  But, the strings are themselves giant money wasters, like this.  To get Alliance funds, the district has to take on initiatives that the State Dept. of Ed. supports—mostly these reformy management gimmicks. 

We might wish Dr. Birks and her staff could be a little pickier in choosing these projects, especially if they will involve ongoing costs beyond the grant.  Just know that the list of options is limited and unfortunate, carefully designed to exclude core educational needs.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 26, 2019  3:32pm

“should be strong evidence that this audit will produce better results for students . . . If that evidence exists”

NewHaven1946, only the little people are governed by data and evidence.

posted by: Bill Saunders on February 26, 2019  4:26pm

FacChek,

Thanks for the ‘inside track’.  I was expecting a Sorority connection.

I didn’t hear anything from DataWise here that seemed ‘revolutionary’.

In fact, I didn’t hear a very important term when dealing with tons of data—‘metrics’.
Couple that with the fact that the Mayor herself says that NHPS doesn’t use data, and we are in deep trouble.

Even the NHPS Advocates are ‘missing’ the boat here.
Metrics are crucial, while a lot of the data might not be!

The ‘metrics’ used to assess success may even be different than ‘test scores’  or ‘attendance’, or some State mandated reporting requirement—these metrics should be determined ‘internally’ to assess both student achievement and teacher/administrator/program effectiveness.

Being able to measure your true success amidst ‘the noise’ is the first step in actually succeeding!

Otherwise, it’s like managing a business to ‘minimize taxes’ rather than ‘maximize growth’.

posted by: CityYankee on February 26, 2019  7:49pm

We don’t need data-wise and we don’t need a curriculum audit.  We have many admins on “special assignments”  and many literacy / instructional coaches with lots of time on their hands to review the curriculum.  Data wise is a waste of money and so is an outside auditor—— unless we can audit the BOE BOOKS!!

posted by: darnell on February 27, 2019  10:03am

It is time for an independent news source which reports the news, and doesn’t editorialize in .
every article it writes, or attempts to build one constituency over another.

“Ultimately, at the end of Monday’s discussion, Goldson said that he didn’t think there were enough votes for the contract to pass. A few members, including Goldson himself, didn’t explain why.”

What the the heck does this sentence mean and why was it added to the story? The reporter didn’t even bother to ask me why I made the statement. It was clear by the comments made by some of the board members, especially the mayor, that they were not inclined to vote for this measure at this time. It was actually separated from all of the other items because there were additional questions raised.

Anyone sitting there and listening, including the reporter, could see and hear that the items was heading towards a no vote, since there were still many unanswered questions. In order to give the Superintendent another opportunity to gather answers to those questions, I asked the maker of the motion to withdraw the motion and instead postpone the vote to give the administration another opportunity to answer the questions posed.

It was that simple and clear, there wasn’t any nefarious motives or underlying activity going on.

I don’t like to play the victim nor accuse folks of bias without well documented proof. I’ve always respected the free press and have known Paul Bass for nearly 30 years. And I’m afraid to publicly accuse the press of reporting “fake” news because I don’t want to give credence to Trump’s accusations. But I’m going to call it as it is, this reporter has clearly shown that he cannot fairly report on the BOE anymore without inserting his editorial comments, suggestions, and not well hidden biases. I have tried to resolve this problem behind the scenes by discussing with both the editor and the reporter on many instances, but diplomacy has not worked.

posted by: FacChec on February 27, 2019  10:47am

Darnell, Fake news, really???
You wrote in response:

“Ultimately, at the end of Monday’s discussion, Goldson said that he didn’t think there were enough votes for the contract to pass. A few members, including Goldson himself, didn’t explain why.”
What the heck does this sentence mean and why was it added to the story? The reporter didn’t even bother to ask me why I made the statement.

Darnell, the reporter does not attribute the statement directly to you, please note that the reporters version of the responses are NOT in quotations; while in your response (above) you apply quotations as if it were a direct writing from the reporter. It is not. You are making something out of nothing. In your response you said..“I asked the maker of the motion to withdraw the motion and instead postpone the vote to give the administration another opportunity to answer the questions posed. Your ask was not reported as part of the story.

However:  “It was clear by the comments made by some board member Joseph Rodriguez, the vice-chair of the Finance & Operations Committee, who had initially put the contract to the board for a vote without any recommendation, asked for it to be tabled. The motion automatically cut discussion short before it passed unanimously.” This passage is Fac, which includes your vote Darnell. I do not believe this is fake news or any substitution of intent by the reporter.

[Paul: Thank you both for your comments! I side with Darnell on this one. As the editor, I should have checked whether Darnell was asked for an explanation. My apologies! And I side with FacChec (who by the way I think has one of the best handles of all our commenters) on the malign overuse of the term “fake news” when someone disagrees with a part of an article.]

posted by: darnell on February 27, 2019  11:50am

Faccheck
you state that—“while in your response (above) you apply quotations as if it were a direct writing from the reporter. It is not.”

You are absolutely wrong, the writing to which I applied quotations marks was IN FACT a direct writing by the reporter. Go back and review the article again. And BTW, I made it clear that this WAS NOT the first time something like this has occurred.

Paul, you may not like the label of “fake news”, but if the shoe fits, well. Your reporter states that “Goldson said that he didn’t think there were enough votes for the contract to pass. A few members, including Goldson himself, didn’t explain why.” We did explain why, and it was clear to everyone in the room, members of the board, and the public, had unanswered questions related to this contract. I stated that we should table the items and have renewed discussion in the Finance & Operations Committee. That is on the record and any review of the tape will show such. To state that we didn’t explain why it did have the votes to pass is WRONG, and from my perspective, with all of the discussion that ensued, seems to be deliberate by the reporter. So the question becomes, was this just a mistake, which would fall under the banner of bad reporting, or was it a deliberate distortion of the facts, which would define it as fake news.

Which was it?

posted by: wendy1 on February 27, 2019  3:33pm

86 this deal.  We dont need any data scheme.  It’s just a money maker for the 1%‘ers.  Read Gadfly On The Wall by Steve Singer.  Take that $$ and hire back some teachers, librarians, or nurses.  I cant wait for this crowd to be gone.

posted by: ActualNHPSteacher on February 27, 2019  10:25pm

Here we go AGAIN!!! What a bunch of BS about data from Boston. Why do they keep trying to throw money away? The principals do NOT need some outside corporation to teach them their “copyrighted” 8 Step Formula to produce more data. They’re not dumb. They know what needs to be done. And they are already drowning in data!!! I am a teacher in New Haven. I, too, have a ton of data on each and every one of my students. We crunch the numbers at every single meeting. Every single month of the school year. How to act on the data that says our students are failing??? Simple: Hire REAL PEOPLE!!!! REAL PEOPLE TO WORK WITH THE REAL STUDENTS!!!! Part time tutors, full time tutors. Open more classrooms so we don’t have to teach 27 students in a 2nd grade class! How about that? Spend the money (which we don’t have anyway) on K, 1, 2 so they can have smaller class sizes. So we can give those little ones more attention and get them reading and loving school. Give them a fighting chance so that when they get to 3rd, 4th grade and beyond they can READ!!! Then test scores go up and everyone’s happy!!! How can this be so hard to understand? It’s a simple fix. We’re not making widgets. We’re growing little people into responsible humans. And as a veteran New Haven teacher I can sadly say that every year I begin the school year with an average of 2 kids who come to me reading on Grade Level. Just about 2 kids out of 27. Every single year. And my school has a very dedicated K-6 staff. We work so hard every day. 1 teacher 27 kids 182 days a year. Try doing that “expert”  Boston consultants! I have no faith or respect in anyone from Central Office. And these ridiculous attempts to throw good money after bad is exactly why.

posted by: ActualNHPSteacher on February 27, 2019  10:44pm

I just have to say one more thing. I’m so confused. We teachers bust our butts all year giving all these mandated state and district assessments, we all attend weekly Data Teams in our schools that New Haven spent tons of money training all staff on how to look at data and fill out endless reams of data forms and NO ONE downtown does anything with it???? Are you kidding me? Then what’s
the point of it all???  We’ve been crunching and agonizing over and trying so hard to improve student data for over 10 years when it was first mandated by New Haven. 10 years of data!  What a waste of my students instructional time. Personally, I don’t feel like filling out any more pointless data forms for downtown. Teachers….let’s revolt!

posted by: Callisto on February 28, 2019  7:21am

The fetishizing of data collection serves hedge funds and corporate interests not students and teachers. Welcome to the “Portfolio” model of education where schools are like stocks, analyzed by data “experts” to find the winners and losers with school closings and other such disruptions lauded by the brass. All across the nation, including New Haven, we see the American top-down management business model applied to igniting a love of learning in young minds. What could possibly go wrong?