For the third installment of her Educational Thought Leader series, Arcadia University education professor Kira J. Baker-Doyle and I had a conversation about a data journalism project that uses big data to uncover inequality in Philadelphia public schools. Baker-Doyle is the author of The Networked Teacher: How New Teachers Build Social Networks for Professional Support. Our conversation follows.

stacked-upKira J. Baker-Doyle: Can you give a brief synopsis of your research on Philly schools?
Meredith Broussard: Last year I launched stackedup.org, a site that tries to answer the question of whether Philadelphia schools have enough books.

This question matters a great deal today because of high-stakes standardized tests. Students can’t pass the tests if they don’t have access to the books (or other learning materials) that prepare them for the tests.

Stacked Up has two components: a reporting tool, and the set of stories I wrote based on the reporting tool. When you go to the site, you can perform your own analysis and judge for yourself whether you think Philadelphia schools have enough books.

The reporting tool is based on an algorithm I wrote that analyzes public data. I think of it as a project that uses big data for social justice.

Why do you think is it important for people to know about this work?
Pennsylvania is one of many states implementing a teacher evaluation system that evaluates teachers based on student performance (among other factors).

It’s not fair to evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores if we are not giving the teachers the tools they need to educate the kids.

Having sufficient resources is a legal issue as well. The Pennsylvania School Code of 1949 specifically states that public schools are responsible for providing students with learning materials such as textbooks. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union contract specifically states that teachers are to be supplied with sufficient materials to teach. If the data shows that the books are not in schools, we need to talk about it.

Photo: Jason Orendorff

Photo: Jason Orendorff

Why is it important to you – what drew you to this research?
When my son started first grade last year, he and I both struggled with his homework. His school used a curriculum called Everyday Math. The homework often required him to talk with an adult, to tell a number story and what have you. I was working full time (I’m a college professor), and between dinner and bedtime, it was hard to find the time to sit down and do this homework together. He couldn’t read the directions himself. He was in first grade; he was still learning how to read. When we did find the time, I found the Everyday Math methods confusing. I tried to use the Internet to enlighten myself, but the instructional materials were either password-protected or really expensive. My son never brought home a math book, just a Xeroxed worksheet, so I couldn’t look at any source material for reference. I was very frustrated.

It didn’t seem fair to tie my child’s academic success to my ability to coach him through these exercises. I also wondered how children without parents were supposed to succeed with these methods, or children with parents who don’t speak English.

An education professor I respect told me that teachers were talking about this very issue regarding standardized tests. The same companies write the tests and write the curricula, she said. I realized that if I wanted my child to pass the high-stakes tests, I had to teach him how to succeed within this curriculum.

So, to figure out how to help my son, I tried to figure out how I myself would pass today’s standardized tests. I read some old PSSAs (Pennsylvania’s standardized tests) and I read the Common Core Curriculum Standards. I found them confusing. I couldn’t learn what I needed to pass the tests using online resources—as I mentioned earlier, many of the relevant resources are password-protected. I needed a teacher to explain the methods to me. I needed a book (or a digital resource) for reference when the teacher wasn’t available.

All of this got me wondering whether students in under-resourced public schools were being given access to the materials they would need to pass the tests. I knew there was a lot of focus on educational outputs: test scores, teacher evaluations, and such. I started looking into educational inputs. I found a study by UCLA researchers that showed that California public schools didn’t have enough books (it was created in the context of the landmark Williams v. California settlement) and a textbook accountability project in the Philippines. I knew that large urban school districts—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia—all face very similar issues. So I decided to look into whether students and teachers were being given the correct inputs to get the desired outputs. The way that education has become standardized lends itself to this type of computational analysis.

Can you describe a little of how you went about designing and implementing your project?
The project is based on a single question: do schools have enough books? You can use the app to answer the question yourself. Here’s a screen shot of what Stacked Up shows for eighth grade at Tilden Middle School:

Screen shot 2014-05-15 at 4.26.38 PM

The graph on the right shows Tilden’s PSSA scores over time (the blue line) compared to the District average (the gray line). So you can see that this is a struggling school. The reading curriculum they seem to be using is called “Elements of Literature” and the minimum a teacher would need to teach this curriculum is a textbook called “Student Edition.” The book costs $114.75. Tilden seems to have 42 copies of this book, but they probably need 117 copies since there are 117 students in the eighth grade this year.

The next line shows that it would cost $8,606.25 to remedy the shortfall of 75 books. A principal or a parent could use this type of tool to see what is missing in a school and make sure every student has what they need to succeed.

What are the most interesting and important things that your work has revealed or created?

The data above gets us to the heart of an intractable problem in the School District of Philadelphia, and one that is faced by every other large urban school district. There simply isn’t enough money. The reading textbook above costs $114.75. However, in this school year (2012-2013), the per-student textbook allocation for middle school was $30.30 per student. That isn’t enough to buy a single book for a single student at this school, much less buy all the books for the four core subjects of reading, math, social studies, and science.

I should also note that 2012 was the last year that Philadelphia budgeted money for books. The per-student textbook allocation was eliminated for the school year 2013-2014. The projected 2014-2015 allocation is also zero.

We tend to think of data as this immutable object that exists outside of any kind of human intervention – because there’s data, that means it’s true. But the thing is, people create data. Data is socially constructed by people who ask certain types of questions and who have certain agendas. Understanding that dimension of data helps us understand the numbers and the social context of the numbers.

Do the Philadelphia schools have enough books? I don’t think so. The data shows that the situation is a gigantic mess. According to my analysis, at least 10 schools have no books at all. Obviously, that’s not possible. Even the schools like Science Leadership Academy, where they have a 1-1 laptop program, use some print books. Those schools that don’t seem to have books probably need more books—but they also probably need more people and more money and more everything because they don’t have enough staff to input the data in the first place. I can’t tell you that the data about books at Tilden is 100 percent accurate because I know that they don’t have enough staff to keep the data up to date and the School District of Philadelphia has told me that keeping track of books is not a priority for them. The teachers and administrators there are working really hard, but without books, they are being given a Sisyphean task.

Data can point us in the right direction, but we need to do serious, human work to solve these complex problems.

How might your work impact schools and students?
I’m pleased to report that there have been positive changes since the project launched. Since I published my initial articles, the District has made some staff changes and financial reforms. Last spring, when the District closed 24 schools, they originally planned to send the books from the closing schools to the receiving schools: the books were going to travel with the students. Instead, they collected all the books from the closing schools and tried to reallocate them more strategically.

I also worked with a group of volunteers at a hackathon last year at which we came up with a possible strategy for helping to solve a specific part of the problem. The principals and administrators complained that they didn’t have the staff or time to count the books, so we came up with a way for parents and volunteers to use mobile technology to help count the books. Basically, you can use a free app on a phone or tablet to scan the bar code on the books, and then you collect the information and dump it into the existing database. We presented this plan to Edison Freire, the director of educational technology at the District, who was one of the organizers of the hackathon.

Schools need books. They need supplies. Teachers can’t teach without materials. We can all agree on these basic facts. I am optimistic about the possibility for positive change.

How might your work impact journalism and scholarship in education?
Stacked Up offers an opportunity for a new metric for evaluating schools. At a good school, most of the students have what they need to learn. That means appropriate teacher-to-student ratios, sufficient learning materials, sufficient space, and sufficient technology. Among other things.

How has this work impacted your own work, personal views, and thinking about education?

It has made me take a second look at some popular myths about kids and technology.

Some people argue that technology can fill in educational gaps. It can, but only for specific types of knowledge, and then only if you’re on the right side of the digital divide. Even then, you have to be fortunate enough to attend a school with sufficient economic and technological capital. As in, your school has to have enough staff to keep the computers working when they break.

Even though Millennials are labeled “digital natives,” in reality they have an extraordinarily wide range of technical abilities. In 2009, education scholar Neil Selwyn published a paper called “The Digital Native—Myth and Reality” in which he wrote: “The findings show that young people’s engagements with digital technologies are varied and often unspectacular – in stark contrast to popular portrayals of the digital native.” The Chronicle recently ran a story called “Confronting the Myth of the Digital Native” that covered similar ground. Now, when I use technology in the classroom, I try to make sure all the students start on a level playing field.

I think we also need to let go of the idea that technology is going to help us go paperless with everything. We’ve had the Internet for 20 years now, and it hasn’t happened. In fact, as cognitive psychologist Abigail J. Sellen and Microsoft socio-digital researcher Richard H. R. Harper write in their book The Myth of the Paperless Office, the use of e-mail in an organization causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption. Integrating educational technology into the classroom means that we need to support teachers and students more, not less.

Finally, technology demands that we become more conscientious about educational logistics. I was particularly struck by an interview I did with Jessica Regetta, High School Academic Director for an inspirational Philadelphia afterschool program called SquashSmarts. She said:

As an afterschool program grownup, you see a lot of the effects of school cuts or school resources outside of school. When you’re the person trying to help a student with homework, it’s frustrating not to have the book. The kids want to do their homework, but don’t have the resources or tools to do it … How I learned how to do homework is, you bring home your book, and you do your assignment. Now, you are supposed to look things up on the Internet instead. The problem is that when the kids do that, they get the wrong information or they’re not using reliable sources, and then they don’t do well on their quizzes and tests.

SquashSmarts uses a very simple educational intervention: books. They have bookshelves in the rooms where kids do their homework. The shelves are stocked with copies of all the textbooks and trade books that the District uses.

Meredith Broussard is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Temple University. A former software developer, she teaches courses in data journalism and entrepreneurial journalism. Follow her on Twitter @merbroussard.