Analyzing choice data

In my previous post, I mentioned that the school district provided some new choice data for me. Ironically, I had asked for aggregated data, but the district pleasantly surprised me with disaggregated data. For those not familiar with the jargon, basically I asked for the summary and they sent me the details. I like details.

One major caveat: all the data below, and the analysis thereof, are from snapshots at specific points in time. I am told, and I believe, that the assignment data is very fluid. I have tried to focus on data that is fed into the relevant software at the time of the “big run”, when parent choices are inputted en masse.

First off, I had to massage the data quite a bit. Even though the district provided a PDF spreadsheet, the document does not convert well to a real spreadsheet; one program I used removed all the “empty” boxes, another program put all the pages on separate worksheets. So in the end I wrote my own script to convert the PDF to a SQL script which inserts data into a database. And from there, we can do all sorts of magic – like dumping it back down to an Excel spreadsheet:

My typical question is along the lines of “how many people chose each school?”

total_choice_count_2015

u4Dashboard_sample_2015The term “overchosen” is a bit nebulous, and perhaps even outdated at this point. But I use it intentionally because the school district still uses it, even though the district has had a history of not telling which schools are actually overchosen. 🙂 This past year I understand that the Family Information Center (FIC) provided a dashboard snapshot to help answer that question, but this was never provided online – you had to visit the FIC in person. You might wonder, why is this important? Sure during the registration process it is helpful to a degree, but afterwards? The purpose of this post is to address that question head-on, in two different aspects.

First, let us pretend this is the middle of March; you are a parent of a child who is entering Kindergarten in the Fall. Let us say that you are busy and have not had time to visit all the schools (all twelve schools!), but you have a pretty good idea of which ones you like, and there are two you least like (maybe the balanced calendar does not fit your work schedule). You visit the FIC and a choice specialist frowns upon your first choice because it is an “overchosen” school and your chances of getting it are less than 100%. This is where the fun starts. Are you the type of person that just really wants to know exactly what your chance is so you can weigh your options? If so, you will be frustrated because nobody will tell you. However, if you can let it go and not get hung up over it, you will be much happier, just pick a couple other schools that you want. The choice specialist will look at your list and tell you if all your top three or five choices are likely candidates. For instance, if you choose Barkstall, Bottenfield, Carrie Busey, Westview and Robeson as your top five and nothing else, there is a good chance you will not get any of them. Why? Again, are you the type of person that needs to know, or can you let it go and take the FIC counselor’s advice in choosing other schools?

Here’s the thing. The FIC staff are smart people; they understand the “system” and they know about the back-end software. However their communication styles/methods differ from person to person. I have talked to many parents who get extremely frustrated with the FIC staff, and I have also talked to many parents who are totally thrilled with the FIC staff. Some people click, some people don’t. Don’t let it ruin your day. 🙂

And here is the second aspect. There is a wealth of information that the school district does not initially make available. Why? I am not sure. At one Choice Committee meeting I raised this question, and it seems the consensus is that sometimes there is “too much” information – it becomes overwhelming and increases stress. Which is a very tricky balance. My goal is to decrease stress. How do we do that successfully for everyone? Ultimately, I think it comes down to being able to differentiate well; which is extremely appropriate because that is exactly what we want our teachers to do. This is no different. Think about this as a class in choosing a school for your precious child, and the FIC staff are the teachers.

For instance, here is a chart showing the trends of the first school choice (choice 1) made my parents who ended up with the infamous and dreaded label “unassigned”:

unassigned_summary_2015

You will notice that Barkstall dominates the top. In other words, of the people who ended up being unassigned, a majority of them chose Barkstall as their number one school. Further analysis of the disaggregated data shows that almost all of those parents did not choose any “underchosen” school as a “backup choice”. However, there is something else I wish to tease out from this graph. I will make it clear with trend lines:

unassigned_trends_2015

In words: for those that end up unassigned, more and more are choosing Carrie Busey as a first choice, and fewer are choosing Barkstall, Bottenfield and South Side.

Another group of factoids from the data. 19 total families chose Barkstall as 1st choice and had no priority (sibling, proximity, low-ses), and only 1 got into Barkstall (18 did not). So that is a 1/19 chance. For Carrie Busey, it was 0/12. 8 of those that chose Barkstall ended up being unassigned – right there is more than a third of the total “unassignees”. The lesson here is that if you do not have priority to a “overchosen” school, your chances of getting in are really really low. And the way the FIC will put that to you is that you are throwing away your first choice. 🙂 Which significantly increases your chances of ending up with no school assignment.

As one parent recently told me, it would certainly be fascinating to find out “why” parents choose the schools they do. Unfortunately, the data we currently have is really bad at answering the “why” question; it is really good at answering the “what” and the “how” questions.

The district is (rightfully) rather proud that the number of families getting their first choice is relatively high. That translates into happy customers. How can we make even more customers happy? What is the next hurdle? For one, I think it comes down to understanding why parents make the choices that they do. I had a great email exchange with a parent from the 2015 School Assignment process that took the time to explain to me why she made her choices, and it totally makes sense. For this parent, being unassigned is stressful; even the ensuing aftermath of dealing with waitlists and being assigned to a second choice school that was (at the time) overcapacity was stressful. I believe the FIC could have done a better job to make this one parent less stressed; maybe by patiently explaining the trends shown above, and encouraging more choices. Or taking the time to listen a little more closely. In general, can we meet each and every single parent where they are at and try to learn what their needs are?

At the end of the day, I am really proud of our Unit 4 schools. I try to tell parents that no matter what school they end up at, most likely their child will love it and have a great experience.

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3 Responses to “Analyzing choice data”

  1. Rebecca Patterson Says:

    It would also be interesting to know why they don’t pick certain schools. And not just a checkmark but real answers. If misperceptions are part of it they should be identified.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Agreed, but not in a bludgeoning sort of way. 🙂 Again, I think the important part is to listen, and let’s face it, some people are much better at listening than others.

  2. pattsi Says:

    Elite interviewing goes a long way to collect robust qualitative data. I noticed that Westview is in the middle of the pack. Rather interesting as to why this might be?


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