First Person

Why I miss ARIS, the data system educators loved to hate

When Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced in November that she would end the city’s contract with Amplify for the maintenance of ARIS, the system that provided a one-stop shop for student data, we were assured that the city would develop an “ARIS replacement.” And while the city has told principals that the new system will be ready by September, as one of the relatively few teachers who used ARIS, I wish that replacement would make its appearance sooner.

Since its creation under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, critics of ARIS contended that it was overly expensive, poorly designed, and hard to use. Indeed, ARIS’s demise elicited “cheers from educators and parents who found the system never quite delivered on its promise.

The chancellor’s decision aligns with her efforts to steer the school system away from how it was run under Bloomberg. She has dismissed his focus on data to assess student needs, instead urging educators to create caring school environments that make it possible maintain strong relationships with parents and students.

But data should be viewed as central to that mission. As one of the 16 percent of teachers (and 3 percent of parents) who used ARIS, I can say that taking advantage of the data system supported my efforts to nurture my students. I found the jubilation over ARIS’s demise to be misplaced; the real problem, I think, was that so few educators and parents used what was an extremely valuable dashboard of data.

Was ARIS overpriced? I think so. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But at least it was one place where I could immediately access an overview of a student’s attendance and administrative records, demographic information, and testing from state and school exams. Now, in order to gather similar information, I would have to harass my school secretary for attendance printouts, dig through various spreadsheets, and log into multiple other systems.

How did I use all of this data? It was integral to the work of my entire staff. We conduct a Student Work Analysis protocol on a regular basis within each grade-level team. Having access to test scores over time — coupled with other aggregated points of data — can provide powerful insight that we would not be able to glean just from student work and teacher observation.

Viewing aggregated student data allows for a more objective identification of patterns and trends. Why has one student steadily declined in math scores each year since third grade? Why did another student’s test score in reading rise drastically last year? Why was this student’s attendance 84 percent in fourth grade? How does this information align with or contradict what we observe in the classroom or in the student’s work?

We are then able to probe further through an examination of the student’s work, discussion of classroom observations, and surveys of the parent and student. As an example, a student’s test scores in a certain year might present an anomaly, such as a sudden drop. This provides a point of further exploration. Why did scores dip that year? Often, the answers to that question provide meaningful insight into the social and emotional needs of a student. When asked, a student or parent may speak about episodes of domestic violence in the home that year, or a divorce that was occurring. This trauma is not always volunteered automatically by a student or parent, for obvious reasons, but can become apparent through data gathered over time. And once possible causes are identified, the option for counseling to provide further social and emotional support may then be explored.

Without access to the aggregated data, educators would not be able to gain such important insight as swiftly.

Having student data readily accessible to educators and parents should be seen as a right, not as an option dependent solely on the political whims of the current administration. The more information that educators have, the more equipped we are in serving our students based on real need, rather than vague and possibly biased perceptions.

I know Chancellor Fariña wants teachers like me to address students’ academic and emotional needs and make school a safe, caring place for them. With ARIS’s disappearance, I have one fewer tool to do just that. I hope that promised replacement will indeed be on its way soon.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.