Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Partnerships in RPS (Part 3: Technology)

Room 107, Overby-Sheppard Elementary (2014)  

If you haven't checked out Partnership #1: Neighborhoods or Part #2:Business, then be sure to do so. If you have, then you're awesome and continue to read on.

Key Partnership #3

Technology we need (and can have) in schools today.

Yes, technology in education is needed. I know someone needed to say it. 

But where much of the tech-education discussion is on big spending in eLearning (e.g. Florida’s big push on technology), I want to focus on the two areas that highly impact student achievement and can be solved with simple tech solutions:

  • Increased transparency of accounting and financial records
  • Data gathering and analysis of student assessments

Increasing transparency in financial records may be the very first step that we need to take in Richmond, because if we are to increase funding for schools it needs to be transparent and used effectively. Per pupil spending in the City of Richmond is already the highest in the region, $4,564 more than the closest locality, Hanover County.  

Per Pupil (FY12)
Richmond City
 $ 13,730

Hanover County
 $ 9,166

Henrico County
 $ 9,041

Chesterfield County
 $ 8,755

Source: Superintendent's Annual Report, VDOE, Table 15 

Further evidence of financial waste can be seen in reports released by the City of Richmond auditor on RPS transportation spending and procurement practices. Recommendations from these reports could save the schools much needed revenue that would be better allocated towards the classroom.
Also, by making these records more transparent, community members would be able to help oversee the system as seen just this spring when Carol Wolf identified uncollected funds for city schools from the Redskins deal.

The tech solution for this need could come from a few different sources. If a top-down government approach is your flavor, then look to Transparent Utah for an easy to use accountability site for public spending. Although this type of change to the system should happen in Virginia, it would involve action at the General Assembly and would eventually filter down to the people, which is obviously not a quick process.

In the meantime, let’s be the change we want to see.

By constructing a crowd sourced, spending accountability site, we can develop a public-private partnership and leverage community investment to bring accountability to education spending. A great example of this concept in action is can be seen in Oakland, California with Open Budget Oakland. Led by members of Code for Oakland, this website receives, disseminates, and presents data in an easily accessible way to citizens and public officials.

Open Budget Oakland (2014) 
If you haven’t heard of Code for America and their mission to crowd source solutions to our nation’s biggest problems then you need to check them out.
Locally, it just happens that Code for RVA is currently working towards a solution for improving school transportation. Sometime in the near future this group will release an app to track school busses to better inform parents and provide information to officials to increase accountability and efficiency. 

The second major need to be met with a simple tech solution is that of data gathering and analysis of student assessments. Whether you agree or not, what will be with us for the foreseeable future is standardized tests.

As a teacher, one of the most time consuming activities was student data input and tracking. So much time was spent in these tasks that quality of classroom instruction and test validity suffered at times. Paper book test scores were kept for administration, online grades for parents, scanned paper tests for the county, and online scoring for state tests. With all of these different types, it was practically impossible for any cross-platform analysis of an individual student’s achievement of the standards.

What we need is technology that allows for teachers, parents, and students to spend more time on data analysis, and less on data input. Any tech solution should aid the teacher in doing their job better and not get in the way of instruction.    

Private technology developers have already jumped into this market with technology firms developing software tracking systems for student data tracking and input, which is termed “Big Data.” Creating partnerships with companies across the research, commercial, and educational sectors to co-design the best tools possible was a recommendation from the Department of Education’s report on educational data mining and learning analysis.

The school board and RPS administration could look to partner with companies in the VA BioTech Park to develop an improved data input and analysis system. This should be a long-term partnership where continued training and support is given to teachers in applying this new technology, as the common practice with education tech purchases is to dump and run. Applied Predictive Technologies (APT) partnership with DC Prep in Washington, D.C. is an example of a partnership in action.

With the generation of data and analysis, details on how this data will be used and applied will be critical. There are high rewards and risks associated with the power of metrics as a tool for decision making. 

What can be done today?

Well, if you have awesome coding or graphic design skills, then contact Code for RVA and attend one of their Hack Nights. The current project is on the bus tracking and I know they would welcome another hand. Also, if we are going to build out an open budget website like Oakland, then more minds will be needed.

For those less tech savvy people, like myself, a good start might be to read over one of the four reports conducted by the City auditor on RPS within the past year. Know what these recommendations are and contact your school board and city council members to make sure that these findings are being implemented.
Finally, be an advocate for increased technology spending in education to aid teachers and administrators. Hopefully this will one day involve a key partnership with a technology firm that will provide long-term training and follow up.

In the short term, a great first step would be to listen to teachers by conducting a survey to determine actual technology needs. For example, a trend I experienced in education was spending on Smart Board technology. In the Ohio middle school where I taught I used one, and really did not see that great of an impact on the effectiveness of my instruction. When it came time to possibly purchase one as a high school teacher in Virginia, I recommended to my administration that I did not need one and that dollars would be better served in another capacity. By starting with the individuals who will most use the technology on a daily basis, teachers and students, we can learn how to more effectively target investment of limited resources.

In the end, what we need is more effective use of technology, not just abundance.

Continue reading for Partnership #4: Marketing!