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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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Comments (21)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 25, 2013 6:23 pm
West is getting hit hard. Losing 4 teachers and as result the entire Building schedule is changing. All teachers got new schedules today students get new rosters on Monday. We're losing common prep which we knew was a luxury. No one is sayin we should keep it but now students have all new classes 4 weeks before grades are due. A block period has been added.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 26, 2013 11:32 am
How exactly is the schedule at West being changed to warrant four teachers being cut? Was there a drop in enrollment? Are the teachers there being transferred to other schools or being "laid-off". Just curious to hear about what caused such drastic changes at your school.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 28, 2013 1:55 pm
Yes leveling. Under by about 110 students from the projected. Lost 3 math and French
Submitted by Helen Gym on October 25, 2013 7:36 pm

Parents have filed more than  800 complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education from at least 90 different schools. This is not about "stories." This is about formal filings which document massive violations of the state code and demand relief. Parents and staff can file complaints at www.myphillyschools.com.

 

Submitted by Sonja Kerr (not verified) on October 25, 2013 8:01 pm
The Public Interest Law Center stands with parents and education advocates to continue to hold the State of PA and Philadelphia accountable. Each complaint received requires a response. The Law Center notes that because of state law 10M of the recent 45m goes to charters ... Philadelphia has lost many children to charters this year. Read Diane Ravitch's book "Reign of Error". This attack on public education is a strategic effort not designed to help kids. We ask all parents and advocates to keep documenting the tragedy of education in Philly this year. We will not rest and we will promote the truth of the shameful conditions.
Submitted by macman2 on October 25, 2013 10:02 pm
The inability to quantify the anecdotes forces us to look at the crude blunt measure of test scores as the criteria for the impact of budget cuts. Politicians will use the excuse of rise in scores or no significant differences in test scores as further justification for the budget cuts. And if the scores were to drop, there will be hand wringing and lip service, but it will be the students who are the real victims. The crisis will come twenty years from now as America moves into second class status and the politicians who perpetrated this crime will have long left office and wonder why their Social Security and pensions are so inadequate. Is it any wonder why we hate politicians?
Submitted by Helen Gym on October 27, 2013 7:11 pm

It is so disingenuous for Lori Shorr or the District to suggest they do not have data on the impact of budget cuts and that they must rely on constituent calls to "occasionally" get information. They can count the number of students in charters and come to all sorts of wild conclusions but they cant be bothered to account for number of overcrowded classrooms? This dumbing down of real consequences in our schools and both the District and Shorr's responsibility is a central issue that I hope the Notebook and others won't allow centrally accountable figures to get away with.

Additional Note: To underscore the disconnect, in the April 2013 meeting notes of the Great Schools Compact, Lori Shorr claims that the Mayor's office has received "lots of positive feedback on Universal Enrollment, citing that parents have been strongly in favor of it." And yet, when it comes to actual problems in schools, Shorr claims that her office has only heard occasional anecdotal indications and recommends parents speak up more?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 26, 2013 9:30 am

We need data before we can conclude cutting already minimal school budgets in half over two years will hurt students?   People on the ground - parents, teachers and students - are clear and they have been speaking out.   The hundreds of complaint forms, over 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for full funding and support for teachers, almost 40 Full Funding Friday rallies since school opened....C'mon Man.

Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on October 26, 2013 10:58 am
"C'mon Man," indeed. Enough already. We get it. Case Closed. End it. NOW what, just keep filing complaints and walking in circles?? Plus, in a couple months, they'll want to close another 30 schools for any number of reasons, all of them contrived and SET UP to fit their agenda. Then what??????? More filing complaints, more circles, more signs, more praying with candles, more singing, more FASTING ??????? Please, get a grip people !!
Submitted by Bill Hangley (not verified) on October 26, 2013 11:00 am

Ron, forgive me if it wasn't clear, but the point of this story was to ask, 'When do we get data from the state and District to help put concerns like Ron Whitehorne's and those of the 10,000 petition signers or the 800 official complainers in context? Because you know how it goes: local organizers get 10,000 people to say, in effect: "The situation's awful." Then the District responds, in effect: "No it's not." So where do we go from there? Do we have class size data, attendance data, climate data, teacher absentee data, number of PSAT tests taken, info on available classes in particular schools - anything? No, no, no and no. The District has that stuff, but the public doesn't. That's the point: the public is hearing dire warnings from parents and advocates like yourself. The District & state are not providing much if any data that helps the public assess the validity or significance of those complaints. Am I wrong?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 26, 2013 12:46 pm

Bill.  No, you're not wrong.  My comments were directed at Lori Shorr and those in power who turn around and suggest the problem is that the public doesn't speak out enough etc.

Submitted by Bill Hangley (not verified) on October 26, 2013 1:53 pm
I hear you. I should have asked Lori whether she considered the PU complaints trustworthy, whether the city plans to refer to them when it lobbies the state, etc. That's something we can follow up on.
Submitted by Bill Hangley (not verified) on October 26, 2013 1:54 pm
(Because, even if each complaint isn't necessarily verified, the volume alone is a legitimate measure of public concern & experience. (That prob'ly deserved higher mention in this particular piece as well as a direct question to LS & I appreciate the feedback - - it helps.)
Submitted by Joan Taylor on October 26, 2013 12:33 pm
“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.” I don't know Ms. Shorr, and perhaps I misunderstand her meaning, but these words suggest a frightening level of passivity on the part of the Mayor's office that is matched by that of the SRC and the SDP high command. I would love to greet the members of the SRC at my classroom door and show them my inoperative smartboard, expensively blocking the whiteboard I could actually use. I could show them the shelves of books I have purchased, and the boxes of papers, pencils, pens, markers, crayons, glue, printing ink, etc. that I have bought. I could show them our empty counselor's suite and explain that I can ignore my kids' need for help with high school applications, or I can eat into instructional time or stay after school to work with them (while our experienced and knowledgeable counselor stays home), but that something invaluable and irreplaceable must go when I add these tasks to my day. "Some days" Ms. Shorr believes the mayor will find out what the schools are like? Not when Ms. Shorr, his liaison for education, tells him? What does this mean? She doesn't know what schools are actually like after these hatchet blows to their budgets? Maybe she could sit the mayor down, along with the SRC brain trust and slowly read them this article. An inexcusable disgrace is what is happening at Central, even with its hundreds of thousands of extra dollars in contributions from its well-heeled Home and School. What do they think is happening at all the other schools? The sickening reality is that all of these people know exactly what these schools are like. Having drained the system for the best it had to offer for their own children, most of the SRC members cast a cold eye on what they've helped lay waste to. If you watch them at SRC meetings, they do it with a brazenly holier-than-thou disdain for the public. Let us all eat cake. Ms. Shorr, I have a suggestion. Maybe you could tell the mayor what is going on. Now that we know he's been waiting to be told, do you think you might be the person positioned to deliver the news? And also, Ms. Shorr, can you get me a projector? Seriously.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 26, 2013 8:12 pm
Lori Shorr makes over $150,000/year. I'm sure she can spare a few hundred for a projector. (She should also loan out her ample support staff.)
Submitted by Wendy Harris on November 19, 2013 2:42 pm

Hi Joan:

The Notebook is putting together a section of the paper called "From our readers." In this section we reprint traditional letters to the editor and comments from those who post comments on our website. We'd like to reprint this comment you made to the blog post "Anecdotes and data: Measuring the impactof the 'doomsday' budget."

Could you please let me know if we could have permission to reprint this? Also, could you tell me how you'd like to be identified in the tagline that we put at the end. We usually put:

Joan Taylor
The writer is XXXXXXX.

If you could let me know by tomorrow if it is okay to reprint this comment that would be great. We are in the final days of our production crunch and need to send the section to layout very soon.

Thanks very much.

Wendy Harris, managing editor

Submitted by Wendy Harris on November 19, 2013 2:37 pm

Hi Joan:

Forgot to mention that you can email me at wendyh@thenotebook.org. Thanks again.

Submitted by Faye Anderson (not verified) on October 27, 2013 10:29 am
To move the needle on public policy, we must move beyond anecdotes. After all, what gets measured gets done. One measure of the impact of the School District of Philadelphia’s “doomsday” budget is the number of complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. As Helen Gym noted, more than 800 complaints from 90 schools have been filed. DOE cannot ignore the complaints; they must respond. So parents, teachers and staff should file a complaint at www.myphillyschools.com. I’m developing the Philly Map of Shame, an interactive map that will visualize the complaints filed with DOE. The data will help local, state and national journalists tell the stories of “deprivation and inadequacies.” As important, the Philly Map of Shame will empower parents to become advocates for their children. With one click, they will see what problems have been reported at their child’s school. They can follow-up with the school principal – or their local and state elected officials – to find out what action, if any, has been taken to correct the problem. Indeed, Sen. Anthony Williams’ call for a formal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Laporshia Massey was triggered by concerns raised by the community.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 28, 2013 1:30 pm
I first want to thank my colleague for putting in words the trauma of leveling which has occurred this week. I agree with everything except her conclusion. No, our students are not ok. This shifting of teachers every year and now every so often does affect them. By the time they come to high school they feel cheated, betrayed and disillusioned. Did anyone ever wonder if this isn’t one of the reasons we have almost a 50% drop out rate? For many of our students we are the only stability they have in their lives. They have know in the past that no matter what is going on in their home, their neighborhood and their lives, school was their sanctuary. This is no longer the case. The message our students are getting from the district and indirectly from us is that no ones cares and, why should I buy into education, why should I trust and it is hopeless. They feel as if they do not deserve anything. Teachers, we are not ok either. Speaking for myself, but I think many agree, but do not voice their opinion. We are not ok changing from school to school year in and year out. We are not ok being switched after seven weeks of school. This is just as destabilizing to us as it is to our students. We work so hard to build relationships with our students, to create a safe environment for them, and then we are gone. It takes a toll on us each time we extend ourselves. Being resilient can only work for so long, eventually we start shutting down. We go into survival mode, which means we are only doing the bare minimum to get through the day and the year. I feel saying we cope or land on our feet sends a message that we are martyrs. We just keep taking and taking. We are meant to be leaders, and as such we need to step us and lead. We are the example and role model for our students. What ever happened to dignity for our students, our profession and ourselves?
Submitted by Phila citizen and public school fan (not verified) on November 19, 2013 6:32 pm
Yes. This comment needs to be reread and thought about.
Submitted by bring back a counselor with her salary (not verified) on October 28, 2013 2:43 pm
Does Lori Shorr have anything other than excuses? She sits at a table at SRC meetings. She is Chair of the Great Schools Compact Committee. She is head of the Mayor's Office of Education. Yet she has no useful information, and doesn't even seem to know how the school district works. Let's face facts: she is useless. She was apparently appointed by the Mayor to spout rationalizations. Call the Mayor? Seriously? Isn't it HER job to tell the Mayor what is going on?

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