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Five ways the Philadelphia School District could collect better data about struggling schools

Without reliable data, it is impossible to make systemic changes.

Last month, Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. released the new district plan intending to make Philadelphia the fastest-achieving school district in the nation. His first priority is to improve safety and well-being — including both environmental hazards and community violence. Making decisions based on data is a clear priority for Watlington. Speaking to Chalkbeat in his inaugural interview, he noted, “I want to take the time to do my due diligence, to take the time to listen, to talk to people, and to study our data.”

I witnessed the problems of school safety firsthand as a teacher. For two years, I worked at Dobbins High School on Lehigh Avenue in North Philly. In that brief time, I witnessed a student assault, hundreds of students watching a brutal brawl, and countless other violent incidents and threats. Dobbins has been chaotic and unsafe for years, and I can’t help but think that the way the Philadelphia School District measures and collects data is partly to blame. Without reliable data, it is impossible to make systemic changes.

Student climate measurements are based on informal walk-throughs, out-of-school suspensions, and serious incidents reporting. Throughout the year, district assistant superintendents and other leaders tour our schools. Their observations are used to identify areas needing intervention and support.

Here is the problem: School District leaders schedule their observations in advance. Many school principals and staff, understandably, want to make a good impression. At Dobbins, much like a restaurant that is cleaned before the health inspector arrives, halls were “swept” before district officials walked through. In an almost comical routine, school staff would charge ahead of the touring group to clear the halls of loitering students. Sometimes the students were brought into a spare classroom and, occasionally, a spare broom closet. Administrators and evaluators never saw the seven students who took up daily residence on the radiator. No one saw the whole-school basketball tournaments that took place every Friday until noon. No one saw the fights. No one saw the hallway assaults that Inquirer reporter Kristen A. Graham described in her investigative report last year.

In other words, the data were skewed by those who could throw out the “bad” data before they were even collected. Faulty data led to misinformed decisions, as the data did not reflect the true school climate. In essence, the observational data were invalid and unreliable, so school issues went unaddressed.

To be sure, not all school leaders are so eager to portray a false version of their school climate. I once had an administrator, Karen Dignetti, who was known for saying, “You get what you get!” She was an exception to the rule.

The processes for reporting school disciplinary incidents must also evolve. At the school level, many violations of the student and district code of conduct go unreported and, therefore, cannot be reflected in the school data profiles. Many times, when a student is issued disciplinary or suspension paperwork following a major behavioral incident, school leaders fail to submit that paperwork to the central office. I have analyzed the climate data for several schools that I am well-acquainted with, and the number of reported major incidents didn’t match the ones I experienced firsthand. Presumably, this is because of the pressure to show good numbers.

Lower-tier offenses aren’t officially counted at all, and unaddressed incidents create a violent culture that pervades our school buildings. At some schools, there is no accountability for making a threat. There is no accountability for continually interrupting instruction or cutting class. Some schools have adopted restorative practices, but those are often haphazard and do not provide the level of steady predictability, accountability, and support that students need.

I am encouraged that Watlington is making safety a priority in the district, but if he wants to create meaningful change, he must closely examine and revolutionize how data is collected about each school.

In addition to the school surveys administered to staff and parents, I recommend that the following steps are taken:

  1. Have district leaders make frequent, unplanned visits to struggling schools
  2. Consider how behavioral data can be submitted by educators and staff in a central location, preferably using the student information system, which is already in use.
  3. Promote trust and transparency at all levels of the process by making referrals and interventions available to teachers and staff in real time.
  4. In the rare case of suspension, have protocols and reporting practices to support the well-being of the student.
  5. Do not penalize poorer-performing schools that have higher incidence rates. We have amazing students, teachers, and staff who are all doing their best.

Changing the way data is collected about our schools will allow deep and authentic learning to flourish. We should not be afraid of the numbers.