Public Impact and FutureEd teamed up to host a panel discussion on the report from Public Impact and Education Analytics, Identifying Schools Achieving Great Results with Highest-Need Students. An op-ed in The 74 gives an overview of the thinking behind the index, intended to give decisionmakers a tool for determining which schools serve the highest-need students and which lead to the greatest student success.
Even before Covid-19, many students needed an unprecedented level of support to thrive—particularly those who are homeless, incarcerated, or in the foster system; those who have dropped out; and those who have fallen far behind due to family and personal challenges. With disparities widened by the pandemic, how can schools support such students?
Under current accountability systems, schools that serve students with the greatest academic needs exceptionally well can go unnoticed—or even be labeled as “failing.” As a result, other schools have no way of learning from and replicating their achievements.
The webinar, hosted by FutureEd Director Thomas Toch, heard from panelists who lead or have led schools serving highest-need students, including Heather Wathington, who chairs the advisory board of the national Campaign for Highest-Need Students. She said the campaign, founded by ACE Charter Schools CEO Greg Lippman, saw the need for the School Needs Index as it begins its work to support educators serving highest-need students, identify and share what successful educators do in serving these students, and coordinate local action among those educators.
“ ‘If I’m working with higher-needs kids, how am I doing compared to other schools working with higher-needs kids?’ That’s where the concept of the needs index came up,” said Noah Bookman, chief solutions officer of Education Analytics . “The idea was to create an index that would rate the level of need at a school, [asking] the question: What is the level of needs of these students in terms of the goals that we have for students? Traditional needs indexes or equity indexes are often organized around just looking at student inputs—things like what percentage of kids are in poverty at the school, what percentage of kids are English learner—and putting a value judgment on what we and stakeholders think is important.”
“The fact that you’re able to boil this down, using the data to create a number that’s data-informed and summarizes the degree of disadvantage—that’s one of the things that the existing data that we report doesn’t do very well,” said Douglas Harris, professor and chair of economics at Tulane University.
“School accountability systems [are] still evaluating schools almost entirely based on outcome levels at the end of the school year, not accounting for these outside factors that are also contributing,” said Harris, who leads ERA-New Orleans and the REACH Center at Tulane. “We’re just not getting a good picture of which schools are actually helping students learn, and that should be the focus not only of accountability systems, but also for school personnel. That’s what they’re interested in. They want to know which schools are succeeding and helping students learn—that’s the goal, even aside from accountability. … Let’s look for schools with high-needs students, and then let’s look for the ones that have high value added—those are the ones where we might learn something, especially if we compare them to other schools that have high-needs students but low value added.”
When her district is making spending decisions or determining whether policies have an equitable impact, the new index lets them “understand if highest-needs schools are getting what they need,” said panelist Sonali Murarka, executive director for enrollment and charter schools in the Oakland Unified School District. “It’s truly data-driven, so we don’t have to get into debates about how to weight different factors or indicators…here we just let the data tell us.”
Murarka noted, for example, how the district’s funding formula weighted some students more heavily—“double-counting” students who were both English language learners and FRL-eligible, for example, with the unintended effect of redirecting some money from schools with higher Black populations. “That had a really profound impact—that was tens of thousands of dollars that these schools were losing, who were definitely serving students in need,” she said. The district believes that the needs index can help solve that problem.
Jessica Nauiokas, head of school and founder of Mott Haven Charter Academy in the Bronx, noted an initial worry that the index would lead to lower standards. “My concern was that if we allowed any school to be able to say ‘we haven’t met achievement because of x, y, or z’ than we’re going to stop holding people accountable for kids to academically achieve,” she said. But the index “helps to recognize the factors that go into serving the high-needs populations well, and I would rather we use the index as a way to double down on the accountability—to be able to say ‘OK, the children you serve may have this particular need, but here are the factors that you are using to mitigate that need,’ so that they are achieving the same way as all their peers.”
What’s next for the School Needs Index? As Wathington noted, this is an initial version, and a “version 2.0” can go deeper.
“We have done some work thinking about how we would celebrate successes and best practices. I think the index allows us to look and see what schools are consistently doing well along certain areas,” said Wathington, who is the president of Girard College in Philadelphia and formerly CEO of Maya Angelou Schools, in Washington, D.C. “So you’ve got the sort of quantitative larger look, and then it’s time to take that qualitative deep dive… it’s a process of marrying that quantitative data within a qualitative investigation to then say, ‘Hey these are practices that, when done, yield stronger outcomes and greater impacts for our young people.’ ”
More about the report from Public Impact and Education Analytics
The index uses previous student academic performance, as well as a host of demographic and economic indicators, to yield a nuanced profile of the level of student need at a school. And while there is much work still to be done here, this index is a crucial first step to identify schools that are achieving the greatest success with highest-need students, making it possible to share their practices.
The report explains the methodology for measuring the extent of support that students need to thrive academically, and how to apply the resulting School Needs Index. Additionally, appendices provide more information that will allow other researchers to replicate the methodology.
The report’s methods should be immediately useful to educators and the agencies that oversee schools, providing tools to improve understanding of schools’ challenges and their successes. At the same time, these methods are a work in progress, intended to be improved over time, with a national data collaborative created toward that end.