The Student Press Law Center’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte interviews reporter Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian in Portland, about her series, “Empty Desks,” on chronic absenteeism.
Photo by Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian
Frank LoMonte: Hi, this is Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, and thanks for joining us for another edition of the SPLC’s monthly podcast. The Student Press Law Center is an advocate for student first amendment rights and we provide research, information and training about the law of access to public records and meetings, a subject that we’re going to talk about today.
The issue of education reform is much in the news these days, and there’s understandably an enormous amount of publicity being given to issues about tenure, about high-stakes testing and, of course, about education funding. Those are all valid and legitimate issues for journalists to write about, but there is a threshold issue about school performance and education quality that has gotten much less attention, and that is the simple issue of getting students into their desks and keeping then there.
The subject of Truancy and absenteeism was the subject of an in-depth study by reporter Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian in Portland, and Betsy is with us today on the SPLC podcast to talk about her research, her findings and her tips for people who are interested in covering the issue of absenteeism and truancy in their own communities.
Betsy has been with The Oregonian for 17 years, before that she covered education with the Atlanta Constitution, she has been an active member with the Education Writers Association and has been a data journalist doing numbers crunching for many years. There was quite a bit of heavy numbers crunching involved in this series Empty Desks, which I commend to your attention.
You can find it on the OregonLive website, and so Betsy thanks so much for being with us, and I guess, just jump right in and, if you would, tell folks about the series Empty Desks. How did the idea come about, how did you conclude that this was a particular problem in Oregon and how did you go about telling that story.
Betsy Hammond: Well, I wasn’t sure that it was a particular problem in Oregon but there had been one study that indicated that it was a huge problem, but that study was a statewide study, it didn’t name counties, it didn’t name schools, it didn’t name school districts, and so it didn’t get paid very much attention because the problem seemed, while it may be in Oregon, everyone assumed it was somewhere else. It wasn’t in their community.
So that’s what led me to want to dig deep and be able to highlight this issue at a very specific level, which required me to get records that I had never been able to get before, which was records for every single student.
Again, the one study looked at the whole state, my study was going to be able to isolate, I hoped, the problem to particular schools, even particular grade levels in particular schools, if I could get the records that I wanted.
Frank: As many people who have done public records reporting with schools and educational institutions are already anticipating, oftentimes getting ahold of records, especially when it involves student information, is difficult and can involve some confidentiality issues — sometimes real, sometimes imaginary — and it can involve some diplomacy, and i’m sure you had to go through all of that.
Betsy: Yes, I’ve never spent as much time trying to finally get records released, but I did succeed and the law is on the side of the journalists in this case, but it was a very protected battle and we had to make a lot of delicate compromises. But in the end we did get the records and were able to tell a really dynamite story and really open a lot of eyes in Oregon that has generated a tremendous amount of ongoing conversation about how folks in our state might fix this terrible problem of kids missing more than a tenth of the school year.
Frank: Right, that was one of the takeaways from the series was, not just that people have occasional absenteeism, but that there is a large cohort of people that are missing 10 percent or more of the school year, which obviously sets them back in their progress, increases the odds that they are going to be left behind or become dropouts.
And I guess talk a little bit about, you were able to conclude, and I’m interested in how you were able to reach that conclusion, that actually the problem was more acute in Oregon, statistically, than anywhere else. And also, you did some correlating trying to look at whether there could be some predictors like the income level of the school to see if there was a correlation between those two factors. I guess, dig a little deeper into the findings.
Betsy: What we found was that almost 20 percent of students in Oregon missed 10 percent of the school year or more. What we were able to find, I believe it was nine other states, a pretty diverse group of states, had studied this issue as well. We weren’t able to look at all 50 states, but of the nine where it had been studied this way, Oregon’s problem was the most severe. Post script, our series came out I believe in February, a study was just released in the last week using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given in every state, and that did show that Oregon is tied for number four among all states, by that measure, of having the worst chronic absenteeism problem.
Again, what was key here was getting records on individual students, because the lens that schools have allowed us to use on this issue has traditionally been average daily attendance, and those rates don’t sound scary. On any given day, these schools have 92-93 percent average daily attendance. That wouldn’t scare you would it? But when you look at individual students, what you find out is that, within that, you have some students that have terrific attendance and then you have these other students who are just wildly endangering their chances of learning to read, of learning to be good at math, and of earning a high school diploma by being absent so often.
Schools themselves, we found, were unaware of the degree of which that problem existed right under their own roof, right under their own classrooms.
Frank: That’s a really great illustration of how statistics can deceive and mislead a little bit, because a person looking at a 92 or 93-percent attendance rate would think ‘well, of course you’re never going to have 100 percent. There’s going to be some people with a cold, there’s going to be some people with a doctors appointment,’ so as long as those were evenly spread out over the whole student body you might not think there is a problem, but if you’re saying that 8 precent is comprised largely of chronic absentees, who are missing over and over again to the point it is making them likely to become academic casualties.
You mentioned, and I want to dig a little further into this because I think this is going to be a problem that other people encounter if they try to go and replicate this type of research elsewhere, that there was some sensitivity on the part of schools about not releasing data in such a way that it pointed to the identity of a particular student, revealed anything confidential about any particular individual, so how did that get raised and how did that get resolved?
Betsy: I’d be delighted to tell you about that, and since I’ve done it I’ve had the pleasure of coaching a few other reporters through making their own data requests. Some of those were at a district level, some were at a state level and I want to tell you, they have succeeded.
So this is something other people can do, but I suspect other journalists will run into the same things I did initially, which is my state agency told me ‘we don’t give out individual student data. That’s not our practice.’ I was like ‘wow, that’s pretty interesting. Oregon, like all states, has an open-records law, and the presumption is for openness, and generally states have to provide an exception to be able to fight the exemption in the law that says they can keep something confidential.’
In this case, and in probably the case of 90 percent of reporters who would try to get this, in fact what they were citing was FERPA, and FERPA, of course the federal privacy law, is not an open records law, it is a privacy law, and it’s very well intended to protect the privacy of students’ educational records so that I can’t call up and find out if Johnny Jones got an A on this test or if Susie Smith, how she scored on the state reading test.
We all understand how that’s fully appropriate, so what became the issue here was, what is personally identifiable, because they can certainly release records about students as long as the common person can’t trace it to the identity of that particular student. You know more about this law than I do, Frank, so that was the back-and-forth that ensued for many, many months between my education agency and my newspaper about what they could legally keep private and what they would need to release.
Oregon has a lot of small schools. We are a very big state with a lot of small, rural communities, and so that raise the possibility that, by releasing something that doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t have a date of birth, it doesn’t have an ID number, but that somebody could figure out who that student was and understand their rate of absenteeism from class.
Now as you can imagine, the rate of absenteeism from class is not a highly personal or private matter. Every other kid in the class knows today, Frank, that you weren’t in class. And that’s partly why I chose this as my first battle for individual student records. Not a highly sensitive matter, these are the kinds of records that have been kept since the 1800s.
So what we did is, the newspaper and I agreed that we weren’t going to ask for data from any schools with fewer than 50 students and then my state agency and I worked out a way to — The only information I was asking about about a student was what grade they were in, as well as the school district, what grade they were in and then their free lunch status. Did they qualify for subsidized federal meals, yes or no? we knew, from all of the research that has been done, that students in poverty are much more likely to miss a lot of school, and schools that work with those students have to make extra efforts to avoid the problem of chronic absenteeism.
The magic number in my state is fewer than six, so if something happens to five students, whether that’s they passed the state reading test, my state keeps that secret because they feel like if something happens to that small of a number of students. So if in any school there were fewer than six students in a grade, which we agreed to a suppression of grade level, if there were fewer poor or non-poor students in a school, we suppressed the free lunch status, and we had some delicate work-arounds like that. But in the end, I did get records on 480,000 individual children in Oregon, and for every one of them I know what school they went to and what the number of days they were enrolled and the number of days that they attended, and for the vast, vast majority of them I also knew the grade level and the free lunch status.
And from that I was able to tell a really powerful story that is going to, I believe, make a difference in my state and lead to better outcomes for kids, so that’s pretty exciting.
Frank: And I just think that that’s such an important lesson in persistence for people to take away from your experience, that the answer for a records request often begins with a no, and over time there is some negotiating through some persistence through maybe making some minor concessions that don’t compromise the central point of the story. You can often get at all or most all of what you need to tell the story, as you were able to do here, but part of it too is just sort of working through the logic with the people on the other side.
As you say, once you get a real tiny group of people it’s conceivable, although even there there’s some room to argue, that the statistic might point to one individual person and in fact the U.S. Department of Education has a rule about these very small data sets saying that they don’t want schools giving out traceable data that could point easily at one known individual person.
But beyond that, really any type of data — statistics, numbers, patterns, trends — should always be obtainable. FERPA is rarely the right answer to that but it does take some persistence and some negotiating sometimes, and it’s great that you were able to get to a yes.
Well talk about that a little if you would. The reporter’s, I guess, ultimate home run is that you disclose something as a result of your research and then it actually results in moving the needle and making a positive change because people react to it and are alerted to a problem and they do something about it.
So what has been happening since February? What has been the reaction to the story and what types of proposals and reforms might we look for in response to the story?
Betsy: Well, it was very well received by — including by the same state agency that had fought me over the release, our state schools chief testifying before the legislature commended the series, called it to their attention. Our chief education officer, who generally, who sends out a weekly notice to all kinds of people, that usually covers numerous topics, devoted it solely to the topic of chronic absenteeism and my series. The phrase chronic absenteeism and absenteeism, which had been almost never spoken in public meetings and in public policy platforms is not very common.
Things move a little bit slowly here. Folks are still at the formation stage of strategies, at least at scale, that will really address this. But it made superintendents and principals, who were not aware of this topic or this issue or this metric, very aware. They’re looking at it, they know it’s going to be publicly reported by my newspaper and by some education agencies, and so that gives them some motivation to really address it, as does the findings that we called out that are very clear in research, which is that if they can get the kids to school, they’re going to have all kinds of better outcomes in terms of their test scores, graduation rates, other things that matter a lot to them.
There are some work being done by the state, in particular communities, to try to focus there on helping them find successful strategies. Tribal communities in particular, all across this country, Native American students for reasons that probably make sense when we think about the way schools and boarding schools were foisted on them and didn’t respect their culture. But they have a huge chronic absenteeism problem that needs to be addressed in partnership with people who know that culture and those families well. That’s been launched.
I just spoke yesterday with a gentleman from a foundation that’s interested in putting some major money, potentially, into helping Oregon communities battle this topic. So I think, bottom line, we’ve already started to see more efforts to get more kids in school and we’re going to see even more. And you’re right, that’s the reason a lot of journalists are in this business is to, on a very good day, make a difference, a positive difference.
Frank: Sure, fantastic. I just, just kind of by way of wrap-up, so I’m a student journalists, I’m at a high school not in Oregon, because I’m never going to be able to outdo what you did. I’m in another state and I’d like to go about, on a smaller scale, doing this kind of research, tracking down numbers, comparing maybe how my school or my district fares against others. How would I go about getting started? Any tips or recommendations?
Betsy: Well, as you said, I think you’ve got to prepare that your first answer might be a no and not be defeated by that. Prepare to make compromises, be friendly and respectful when you find the right person.
Let’s say it’s a school district where we’re going to make the request, so we would need to have something, either start with a friendly conversation on the phone, that’s what I like to do before I launch into the formal written request, find out who keeps those records, a little bit what some of the terminology is. For example, here in Oregon, it’s days enrolled and days attended. Generally those two things are kept because they are tracked for state funding purposes, and to make a request. And think about what you would want to know about the students.
For example, if you try to ask for everything: “I want to know about the special education, I want to know the race and the gender, that’s going to decrease the likelihood that you’re going to get it because, again, that makes it more personally identifiable.
So what is the topic in your community that would be of interest? Do you think there is a problem? Would gender be important to the story? I think free lunch status makes a lot of sense, but if that’s quite uniform in one’s community that might not be the topic. And then go ahead and ask for those, at the student level, that would tell you how many days the student attended and how many days the student missed. And then once you get those it’s pretty easy, it’s basically division to calculate the rates and to count up how many students would meet that threshold of attending, missing 10 percent of days or more. Again, a lot of it is going to be the negotiation with folks who hold the records, but if they say ‘FERPA doesn’t allow us to put out individual student records,’ my series and my 480,000 records that came out without any problems, not a single complaint that privacy had been compromised, would be one place to point to that that’s not true, that FERPA doesn’t say that, and that I can see student journalists getting this information and finding out some neat things and bringing it to public attention.
Frank: Well I just want to reinforce two points that you made. The first, and I loved this, you can’t say this enough, is very often, strategically, the first step in getting all the records is not the written request but the telephone conversation or the meeting. Many times I’ve seen journalists shorten their timeframe quite a bit in obtaining records by getting their arms around the data first: Who has it, how do they keep it, where do they keep it, how far back do they keep it, in what form do they keep it? I you can get all those questions answered, then you may save yourself a lot of back-and-forth and a lot of delay in the request process.
You also may find out when you’re in those meetings or on those phone calls that you learn about other data that you wouldn’t have even thought to request before, so there’s nothing but good that can come out of that. It’s rare that you’re going to sneak up on somebody entirely with the request and so it’s really probably a better first step, particularly for an agency that you think you’re going to have ongoing dealings with and want to maintain good relations with, to start with the phone call and not start with the scary lawyer letter, so that’s number one.
Also, you mentioned, which I think is a great resource that people should be aware of, the NAEP Report — National Assessment of Education Progress — that’s sometimes called the nation’s report card, and that comes out every summer and it’s really this gold mind of statistics, which can be localized by student journalists so they can kind of tell the public where their school stands in relation to comparable schools. That, and much much more, is available from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The National Center for Education Statistics is at nces.ed.gov, nces.ed.gov, and if you’re just looking for a story idea on a slow news day, that’s a great place to get started to do some browsing.
Anything else by way of wrap-up or any ideas or suggestions, along those lines, that you’d like to share for resources that students should be aware of?
Betsy: Well I’d just reinforce, again, what you said and what I said, is if you want the data, a friendly conversation where you contact your school, your school district, your state agency, to find out more about the data, just show a great, show a positive and curious attitude about ‘I want to learn about how you do store these records,’ what some of the terms are, what you have, getting on that friendly basis, learning their language, learning a little bit about how they store it is helpful for any data request that you’re going to make.
As you said, you’re going to save time and heartache for both parties, and I think that’s always the best way to start. I would caution that those NAEP Scores exist only on a statewide level and then, for a select number of large urban districts, so it won’t actually give you information, quote, about your school, in most cases. But those statewide statistics you can get from those, the test scores and the questions that test-takers are asked can be just a goldmine.
So ya, NCES is a really fun place to spend time looking at a whole host of statistics, I agree with you. And then your center is also a wonderful place to turn if you do run into problems after you’ve started that negotiation over records. You guys have helped a lot of student journalists and professional journalists make sure that the law is followed and the appropriate access to public records happens, so we really appreciate that. Thank you so much.
Frank: Wonderful. Well thank you for doing such a wonderful job with this Empty Desks series. again, for those who have not read it, OregonLive.com, OregonLive.com is the website that has the series Empty Desks. And in addition to being a really great job of data reporting, they’ve also done a terrific job of visualizing this data on maps and of course that’s very important to capturing and engaging readers’ eyes these days, and people love to see clickable maps where they can look at their own community and compare it against others. And this is a very, very mappable issue and a mappable subject and people who like to build maps can enjoy working on this project as well.
Well, Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian, I just want to thank you so much for sharing your expertise. And for those of you who are running into any issues with access to public records, we invite you to contact the Student Press Law Center. We’re online at splc.org with our brand new, newly designed website. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org and the number is (703) 807-1904. Thanks so much for joining us on the SPLC podcast. We’ll talk to you next month.