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Anecdotes and data: Measuring the impact of the 'doomsday' budget

by Bill Hangley Jr.

At Furness High School, dead batteries in laptops are not being replaced.

At Central High, some seniors who want to take calculus, or AP Chinese, are being told no because there's a lack of room. At the same time, other students are assigned to courses they don’t want.

At these and other high schools, classes are filled to their limit with 33 students, and many afterschool activities have been dropped because there is no money to pay teachers to run them.

As the school year advances under the so-called “doomsday" budget, the stories of deprivation and inadequacy continue to pile up: crowded classrooms, overstretched staff, and frustrated students.

But as the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. Measuring the impact of this year’s austerity budget in terms of lost opportunities and altered life chances for students is very difficult. There is still a big question out there: If the impact of the doomsday cuts in Philadelphia classrooms is as serious as some fear, how will that be measured and communicated to the public?

A shortage of data

“It’s a good question – a question I think about all the time,” said Lori Shorr, head of the Mayor’s Office of Education.

But District officials say they have no special plans to collect data with an eye toward quantifying the anecdotes, determining trends, and measuring the fallout – and perhaps making a case for additional funds.

“If we have something that we can share and it is publicly available, we’ll do our best to provide it,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. “I’m not aware of any special reports [in the works] given the specific challenges that the District faces financially.”

The District does assemble a wide range of information about day-to-day conditions in schools: numbers of violent incidents, class size, school enrollment, teacher and student absenteeism, demand for special-education and language services. But little is regularly released.

Shorr gets some monthly climate and attendance data from District officials, but also relies on constituents’ calls to measure schools’ health – an imperfect source at best.

“Some days I believe that people will call and tell the mayor, and we will know,” Shorr said. “And sometimes I think they’re putting their heads down, marching into the wind. They may not think to pick up the phone.”

Getting stories out there

A few teachers and students are trying to get their stories out there.

Typical is Donna Sharer’s experience at Furness High School in South Philadelphia, which is serving almost 700 students with a staff meant for 500.

“There’s not a catastrophe,” said Sharer, a social studies teacher. What worries her, she said, is “the trickle, the long-term ramifications” of the budget and staff cuts.

Measuring that “trickle” is what’s challenging. For example, what’s the impact of dead computers? “We have a lot of very old laptops, and they need new batteries,” Sharer said. “Otherwise they end up sitting around and they don’t work.”

But the assistant administrator who would have bought the batteries is now gone, Sharer said. Batteries may eventually appear – or they may not. If they don’t, Sharer said, the lack of computer access could easily hold back a student at a key academic moment, and make or break an attempt to pass a class or even apply to college.

Such developments can take years to manifest in test scores or graduation rates, leaving Sharer worried that students will spend this year quietly falling behind as staff and families learn to make do with the resources at hand.

“Nothing’s going to happen tomorrow, but this stuff is eventually going to catch up with us,” Sharer said. “We have one principal and one secretary. We have a counselor that’s shared with six elementary schools. There’s hardly any time set aside by the District to allow us to meet, to plan. We can’t talk about different groups of students, students with particular needs.

“If we can’t address that, it’s going to show.”

Unseen effects

K.D. Davenport, a biology teacher at Central High School, said that although overcrowding in classrooms is a problem, so is the lack of classes.

“The effects of staff reduction are sometimes less visible than oversized classrooms, but they hurt kids just as much,” said Davenport, who is also assistant roster chair at Central, meaning that she helps coordinate course schedules for students and teachers.

Davenport said that this year she has had to “tell seniors with excellent math grades – students who want to pursue a career in engineering and medicine – that they cannot take calculus, because calculus classes are full.”

Teachers who would be teaching calculus are instead teaching introductory math classes “that used to be taught by laid-off colleagues.”

At the same time, some students are “stranded,” Davenport said, in Advanced Placement courses that they don’t want or don’t have the preparation for because “there aren’t enough standard-level classes to go around.”

The tight roster situation also means that it’s difficult to adjust student schedules so that they can take courses they want.

“Suppose [a student] wants to take AP Chinese but it’s only offered fourth period. She has social science that period. Normally, she could switch to a different social science class … but because all the classes are full, we can’t switch her.”

Davenport is typical of teachers who “must perform the same job with less time to do it.”

Those like herself, who in the past had “release time” to fulfill other duties, like working on rosters, are teaching more sections but are still expected to do the other job.

“Lots of us are doing this, leaving all of us less time and energy to grade, plan our lessons, and help students in our roles outside the classroom,” she said.

More lost opportunities

Much attention was directed at Central’s closed library, which was rescued by an anonymous donor who sent money to pay a librarian. But other things of importance at the school have also been lost. Student Julia Bugayev wrote in an email that the Advanced Research Program, a course that allowed students to work with prestigious scientists in labs and colleges around the city, was cut. The teacher is trying to supervise it as an afterschool activity, but it is less structured and students no longer get credit for it.

Bugayev said that elimination of the class jeopardizes her ability to compete in science fairs. “This not only shatters my heart … but it limits my opportunities for scholarships as well,” she said.

Ruba Idris, who wants to be a neuroscientist, was deprived of the advanced-research course, but also lost the chance to take AP psychology. “The budget cuts have sucked the joyous atmosphere in my school and have replaced it with a gloomy environment,” Idris wrote. Other students wrote how they haven’t been able to schedule a meeting with a counselor, even though college application and financial aid deadlines are looming.

“The counselors book two weeks in advance for an appointment,” wrote student Rebecca Composto. Other high schools have no full-time counselors at all.

Mid-course data: 'It’s worth a real effort'

Next week, the stories will multiply as the District moves around teachers en masse as part of “leveling,” the process of reassigning staff based on where students actually show up. Some schools with higher-than-expected enrollments will get more teachers, while others will lose some.

Leveling is a long-standing District policy designed to make efficient use of personnel. But this year its effects are likely to be more widespread and destabilizing due to the extremely tight resources.

The District is planning to release some data on the leveling, said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard, quantifying how many teachers were moved and how many teachers were added. He said there would not be school-by-school information.      

Given the extraordinary financial situation the District now faces, Shorr said, she’d welcome as much data as possible as soon as possible.

“Having mid-course information from the District would be helpful for lots of people – understanding what the impacts have been,” Shorr said. “It’s a hindrance [to work without it]. We don’t have hard data on a lot of things with these cuts.”

Darren Spielman, head of the Philadelphia Education Fund, agreed that the District would do well to share more of what it typically keeps to itself. “It’s worth a real effort,” he said. “They should not be afraid to share data that shows a downward trend.”

But with no such plans in the works, for now, “anecdotes will probably win the day,” Spielman said. 

Furthermore, many of the deepest concerns raised – such as the long-term impact of counselor cuts on college attainment – can’t be easily tested with data, even in the best of circumstances.

Still, District officials said they would be responsive to specific requests. “If we have something that we can share and it is publicly available, we’ll do our best to provide it,” Gallard said.

Pressing for more information

In the absence of new data from District sources, advocates say they’ll be keeping an eye on existing data sets and pressing, where possible, for more.

At the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), for example, attorneys will be monitoring the number of calls to the state’s special-education troubleshooting hotline. The state “has to report the existence of the complaint and track the number and types of complaints,” said PILCOP’s Sonja Kerr. “There’s a lot of data you can get.”

At the Education Law Center, spokesperson Brett Schaeffer said staff will meet privately with District officials to see what can be learned about the level of services available to English-language learners. "Is there sufficient bilingual staff to help interpret and translate important information and even mandated documents?” Schaeffer said. “Those are the questions we're asking.”

In City Hall, Shorr said the mayor’s office will eventually produce some data of its own about college applications – but only after a time-consuming survey of local colleges is complete. “It will take us a year to know whether not having the counselors in the schools will have a negative impact,” she said.

Shorr also wants to know how many parents are leaving the District for charter or parochial schools, but she’s not not yet certain what she can get on that subject from the District or the Archdiocese, or what findings she might make public. “We’ve never been in this situation before,” Shorr said. “But it is something … we need to know.”

City Council has scheduled hearings on school budgets and “best practices” on Nov. 19 and 20, and if past experience is any guide, these may prompt District officials to release information.  

Observers agree that school climate data in particular – attendance, violent incidents and so on – will provide an important measure of schools’ stability and morale, and could be made available in time for negotiations on next year’s budget, which will take place in the spring.

But when it comes to the impact of budget cuts in areas like classroom performance, graduation and college attainment, or services to English-language learners and special education students – reliable facts and figures aren’t likely to be made public until after next year’s education budget is already set.

That leaves teachers like Sharer, of Furness, worried that the hard numbers will come too late for the students who need help today. 

“This year’s group of incoming 9th graders have to pass the Keystone tests,” Sharer said. “We should be able to provide them with supports. Instead I’m scrounging through closets trying to cobble together something so we can have a quasi-reading program. ... Maybe not this year, but that’s going to affect these students.”

And it leaves Shorr urging families to continue speaking up. “Don’t underestimate the power of parents’ stories,” she said. “They are sometimes much better … than numbers.”

Additional reporting by contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa

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