Guest opinion: Data-collection overload strangles rural schools
When discussion of K-12 education focuses on partisan funding battles, we sometimes ignore measures to improve our schools that ought to receive bipartisan support. Over the past two decades, lawmakers, as well as state and federal bureaucrats, have handed down overwhelming mandates for collection of information about students and teachers. (No doubt, I voted for some of these mandates during my years in the Colorado Senate.)
While this reporting bureaucracy is burdensome for all schools, it’s becoming especially overwhelming for small rural schools and taking critical time away from the classroom and other essential functions.
Recently, Denver Public Schools announced that it was cutting 157 “central office” jobs in order to balance its budget. By contrast, my hometown school, Burlington School District, only has 103 total employees.
Certainly, DPS (90,000 students) is vastly larger than Burlington (711). However, most of Colorado’s schools more closely resemble Burlington than DPS. Of 178 school districts in Colorado, 109 have fewer than 1,000 students. Those districts combine to educate more than 34,000 students.
In these schools, the “central office” probably consists of a superintendent, a bookkeeper or business manager, and an office secretary.
The superintendent often doubles as principal and sometimes drives a bus. The business manager serves as human resources director, lunch program coordinator, bookkeeper, school board secretary, substitute teacher coordinator and unofficial nurse or “owie bandager.” Office secretaries manage attendance and meal counts, compile report cards, edit newsletters, maintain calendars, repair the copier, answer the phone, pick stickers out of little fingers and take temperatures.
These are the same people expected to comply with the never-ending demands for data collection from state and federal Departments of Education.
One small school tabulated a list of 57 mandatory reports that must be submitted regularly to state or federal agencies and another 63 reports that are required to obtain funding for certain programs.
In October, when school districts report the number of students enrolled, they must also submit individual demographic information for every student. That same information must be re-created and resubmitted at the end of each school year.
Once a record was created for Jansen Jones or Sophia Torres in kindergarten, you would think the school could simply check a box the next year to confirm that Jansen or Sophia are enrolled again.
Not so. Despite CDE’s use of unique student ID numbers, the school must resubmit the same information for those students for every report year after year.
It gets worse.
Each time students take a mandated test, the school district must re-create that same demographic information to send to the company that administers the test. The company tabulates the information and sends it back to the Colorado Department of Education, as if they’ve never seen it before.
Elementary schools are also grappling with Teaching Strategies Gold, a data-collection behemoth intended to track the progress of students. TS Gold demands that teachers instantaneously document the progress of every student in 38 different categories using pictures or specific examples.
Teachers can teach or they can document, but until they are cloned, they cannot do both at the same time.
It’s common for our elementary teachers to work late into the nights and on weekends just to keep up with required reporting. In our local preschool, a staff of four teachers and aides reports spending roughly 15 hours a week to document just 32 students. “Sometimes I think I should go to work at Safeway, so when I leave work, I don’t have to take it home with me,” an exasperated teacher told me.
If legislators want to help our schools, they could begin by curtailing this data-collection overkill until CDE and all of its vendors use a uniform system that eliminates the need for mindlessly repetitive data entry.
Then schools could spend their money as taxpayers intended: to teach students.
Burlington resident Mark Hillman served as Colorado Senate majority leader and state treasurer. To read more or comment, go to http://www.MarkHillman.com.
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