Category Archives: Student Data

Behind the Scenes on Our New Education-Themed Web Game

Last week, we released Rigged, a choose-your-own-adventure-style game designed to represent the experiences of youth trying to navigate school while experiencing challenges like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. The game is a glimpse into the impossible tradeoffs these students face regularly.

We collaborated with the folks at Filament Games, including the project’s sole engineer, Terra Lauterbach, to create this one-of-a-kind game. Terra has been a game engineer at Filament Games since early 2017, and for Rigged, she engineered the unique card-based mechanics and supported with the game’s user experience and sound design. I chatted with Terra to share more about the process of creating the game.

The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What were the objectives in creating Rigged?
Rigged was envisioned as an interactive way to help players develop increased understanding and empathy towards underserved youth who have spent time in juvenile detention, are on parole, or may simply be struggling to navigate the system. Bellwether wanted players to be able to relate to the characters in the story, putting users in the shoes of underserved individuals in order to promote inclusivity and a greater shared perspective.

How did you approach designing a game around these topics?
We always intended for Rigged to be an open-ended experience. Our team wanted to give players a menu of choices and require them to balance the consequences of their decisions. Bellwether chose five in-game domains for the player to balance: money, relationships, health and wellness, academics, and responsibilities — all things that one must manage in day-to-day life. Each binary choice that the player faces has a non-binary effect on those domains, positively affecting some domains while negatively affecting others depending on what path the player chooses to follow. Having Bellwether’s subject matter experts easily available at all times (they created the actual content) was extremely useful throughout development. Continue reading

Can Better Data Infrastructure Prevent School Violence? We Think So.

Some states want to use federal grant money to put more guns in schools in order to prevent another episode of violence like the one that we saw in Parkland, Florida. It’s a controversial idea and one that favors grand drama over real thoughtful solutions. While it won’t grab national headlines, we could actually prevent more violence and protect more students for less money with investments into information-sharing technology.

There’s no way to know with certainty what could have prevented the tragedy in Parkland, but we do know one thing: there was enough information out there to paint a troubling picture of a young person in crisis with a desperate need for supportive services. Nikolas Cruz, who  returned to his high school armed and killed seventeen people in six minutes, was known to adults as a child in need of additional support and services.

Acting on that information is a different story. Alarmingly, we have recently learned that the adults (like psychiatrists, teachers, and law enforcement officials) who held pieces of Cruz’s story weren’t talking to each other, and there was no system in place for them to share information securely, quickly, and accurately.

Part of the problem is legal: health care, education, and child welfare privacy laws constrain the ways in which systems can share personally identifying information about young people in their care. At school safety panels earlier this summer, the Attorney General and other federal leaders suggested that these statutes are interpreted too broadly and that restricted information-sharing impedes the ability of local authorities to quickly deliver services to students in crisis.

But an important — and overlooked — part of the problem is technical. Even where there are data-sharing agreements in place, and high-quality service programs available to meet every need (and enough resources to go around), databases that track services for young people are quite literally disconnected from each other and unable to connect those services to the kids who need them. Legacy data warehouses within care agencies and schools create data silos that are nearly impenetrable. Not only do systems not talk across their bureaucratic borders, they are often incompatible with their counterparts in the next city or a neighboring county.

And even where the technical infrastructures are more modern, they rarely hold all of the information that exists or hold it in a way that is useful for providers. In fact, many systems still keep paper records or require hard copies of requests for information. As a result, direct-care staff, like nurses and school counselors, end up spending much of their days tracking down paperwork, faxing things back and forth, and cold-calling other offices instead of working with young people. Continue reading

Why Can’t We Find Even the Most Basic Info About Schools in Secure Facilities?

Amid recent fuss about the accuracy of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Data Collection, it’s important to look at how those data errors can meaningfully impact education experiences for young people for whom no other substantive national research exists: students attending school in secure juvenile justice facilities.

Approximately 50,000 young people are incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities across the country on any given day, and they are supposed to attend school while they are in custody. For many of these students, attending school in a secure facility is the first time they have engaged with school consistently in three to five years. Their school experience while in custody is their last best chance to change the trajectory of their lives.

The problem is we know very little about the quality of these educational opportunities.

The biannual data collection conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is intended to be a comprehensive survey of education access in all schools in the country, and it now includes these juvenile justice schools. But our analysis from earlier this year found that states, and OCR at large, have not taken the responsibility for accurate reporting seriously. In fact, inconsistencies and incompleteness render the OCR data nearly meaningless. Alarmingly, the data still do not allow us to answer even the simplest question: How many students were enrolled in a juvenile justice school in 2013-14? Continue reading

Transformative Tech for Youth in Transition

Millions of students every year experience homelessness, a foster care placement, an incarceration, or an unmet mental or physical health need. And while the organizations and individuals that serve these youth act with the best intentions, existing technologies and practices result in fragmentation and poor communication among the adults working with a given young person. Different agencies may only be aware of particular aspects of a student’s life: one agency may know about a student’s health history while another knows about their past foster care placements.

There is hope, however: a number of districts and states have begun to innovate and design technological solutions to resolve the issue of agency fragmentation.

DC Foster Kids App home page

In Washington, D.C., the Child and Family Services Agency has developed the DC Foster Kids App, which grants foster parents and provider agencies access

to important information about their youth in care through a web-based application. The application includes medical contact information, important dates such as court hearings, and licensing and training requirements for the foster parent. Easy access to information allows the student and the adults in their lives to remain aware of milestones and data to best serve youth.
Continue reading

Do Incarcerated Youth Have Equal Access to Education? Let’s Look at the Data.

Although we regularly assess student learning and evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in traditional schools, there is almost no hard data on the quality of education in the schools that serve students held in juvenile justice facilities. These facilities tend to only collect data focused on safety and security. What kind of education do these students receive?

Based on the first year of available data from the U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection, we conducted a national analysis to answer some simple questions:

  1. How many youth are enrolled in juvenile justice schools across the U.S.?
  2. To what degree do they have access to math and science courses (the only courses on which we have data)?
  3. How often do they enroll in these courses?

What we encountered on the way – before even answering the latter two questions – was troubling.

At the start of our analysis, we needed to set up a rudimentary fact base. How many juvenile justice schools are there in each state, and how many kids are enrolled in each? Basic questions, it would seem. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Education collects public school enrollment nationally. In the 2013-14 data set, the first one made available, they decided to include juvenile justice schools in their definition of “public.” After adding up the number of students in juvenile justice schools for each state, we found that the number was suspiciously low. For example, Arkansas reported only six students enrolled in one juvenile justice school – in the entire state. South Carolina reported no juvenile justice schools at all.

We found it hard to believe that only six students were incarcerated in all of Arkansas, so we compared the enrollment data to another data set – the number of incarcerated youth in each state for the year 2013. If all was well in the world of data quality and educational access, we would expect the data sets to somewhat align, meaning the number of enrolled youth would account for about 100% of incarcerated youth. That, in turn, would give us a fairly accurate picture of educational opportunity for incarcerated youth in each state.

However, we found that in the majority of states, the enrollment numbers of juvenile justice schools didn’t remotely match up with the number of incarcerated youth for the same time frame. In only 18 states did the number of enrolled students somewhat account for the number of youth in placement (that is account for 70% – 130% of youth). In the other states, that alignment ranged from 0% (South Carolina) to 940% (Delaware). 940% means that way, way more youth were reported enrolled in juvenile justice schools than actually incarcerated. What seems mathematically impossible is more likely the result of schools being mislabeled as serving incarcerated youth or schools reporting cumulative enrollment (how many kids enrolled in a year) instead of snapshot enrollment (how many kids were attending school on one day).

Without accurate data, it’s hard to make state-by-state comparisons about access to education in these facilities. Good data matters. Without it, we don’t know whether the thousands of kids who are reported as incarcerated, but not enrolled in a school, are actually getting an education. They deserve better.

Check out our other findings in the full slide deck, Measuring Educational Opportunity in Juvenile Justice Schools.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.