Failure Factories

Failure Factories

Organisation: Tampa Bay Times (United States)

Publication Date: 04/14/2016

Size of team/newsroom:large


When official rankings in 2014 showed five of the 15 worst schools in Florida were clustered in Pinellas County’s black neighborhoods, the local School Board should have declared a state of emergency. Instead, board members and other leaders in this mostly white and conservative southern county did nothing, refusing even to acknowledge that black children here were failing at higher rates than black children virtually anyplace else in Florida. For years, the people in charge of the school district have blamed abysmal black academic performance on poverty. They excused it as the natural state of things, saying it was no different than the challenges faced by any other school system across the nation. Then a group of reporters and data experts from the Tampa Bay Times picked up the story. Using millions of rows of data and innovative digital storytelling techniques, the Times knocked down each and every official excuse for what was besetting black students in Pinellas. The stories laid blame for the problem where it belonged – at the feet of local leaders whose neglect transformed five decent schools into failure factories. The reporters proved that what was happening to black children in Pinellas County was unlike anything else in the state of Florida. The School Board had created the problem in less than a decade by resegregating five elementary schools in the county’s black neighborhoods and then breaking promises to support them with added money and resources. These efforts have produced results. Our approach garnered so much attention that #FailureFactories was trending in the Tampa Bay area, a major media market, days before the traditional start of the series had been published. Pinellas School Board officials have launched a series of reforms, including a proposal to pay teachers in the schools up to $25,000 extra each year; the hiring of a turnaround specialist to oversee the schools; the elongation of the school day by an extra hour; and plans to open magnet programs on some of the campuses. The U.S. Department of Education has launched a civil rights investigation into the school system. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saw our stories online and flew to Pinellas County to visit one of the schools, calling the situation a “man-made disaster” and “education malpractice.” In the wake of the series, the plaintiffs in separate lawsuits, one in federal court and one in state court, have sought to renew court action against the district for shortchanging black students. The state Department of Education has taken the lead on a review of how the school district spent federal money for impoverished students.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The stories were made all the more powerful by the Times’ use of experimental storytelling techniques. It started with a big risk. The Times spent months on a series of data visualizations, then used them as a prologue to launch the project. The interactive chart, which became the opening salvo for a complex local story, sparked national interest, rewrote the book on how to build buzz online for a big story and created a model for other news outlets to follow. Most importantly, it took an extremely complicated topic — rooted in school demographics and standardized test scores – and made the information resonate on a visceral level. We also built an interactive narrative showing what kids in these schools face every day, in a way that was only possible through an immersive digital experience. We built extra technology to make sure our stories loaded quickly on phones — a critical feature in the impoverished neighborhoods we were writing about, where cell service is notoriously spotty. And we knew the story would have impact both in those neighborhoods and beyond our newspaper’s circulation area, so we created a system that let readers subscribe to alerts when future installments went online. It was a complicated topic, rooted in school demographics and standardized test scores. For years the district’s leaders had refused to acknowledge the problem was anything but normal — saying this was a sad but inevitable truth, common in all impoverished areas. Our digital presentation broke through that complexity, marrying data visualizations with strong writing to cut through those stereotypes. One by one, we were able to dismiss each tired excuse, forcing our community to restart the conversation and its leaders to look at what they had done wrong.

Technologies used for this project:

Our project made extensive use of interactive storytelling, which was built in Javascript with much help from d3, underscore.js and jQuery. The Times’ stories were based on a foundation of more than 100 separate data analyses. For years, the school district and county leaders had dismissed low minority success in standardized tests as normal — something to be blamed on poverty and demographics — just like everywhere else in America. The Times’ deep analysis knocked down that notion, proving statistically that something is uniquely wrong in Pinellas County and showing what years of anecdotal reportin This analysis was performed in Python (Pandas and Django's ORM), Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access and PostgreSQL. Among the statistical tests that formed the foundation of our report: * Linear modeling (and corresponding residual analysis) that revealed to what degree factors like poverty and race explained the poor test performance of the schools we were studying. * Standardizing school test results with z-scores to isolate our schools’ plummeting performance from the fluctuations caused by changes in how the tests were administered and scored. * Geospatial analysis of school attendance zones and census zones to rule out poverty as the root cause of the failure we documented in south St. Petersburg.
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