One Life, Well Traveled

A Personal Blog

How this All Began.

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A few days ago, when it was still February, I was a Project Assistant for the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (hereafter referred to as CASTL, pronounced “castle”), working under the auspices of the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education (or NCRECE, said “increase”).  This is an enjoyable job, for a great employer, but the term is somewhat opaque.  To more widely express what a Project Assistant does allow me to explain something of what this was all about.

My work was the third phase of the Professional Development Study, called “Kindergarten Tracking.”  In this portion of the study, we followed (with parental permission of course!) a selection of the children from the teachers who participated in phase one and phase two into their Kindergarten year, and requested their new teachers to tell us (via questionnaires) about their relationship with these children.  This information then needs to be kept confidential and protected.  This process, then, requires certain skills to be done correctly.  Failure to properly execute this, at least at certain points, would have serious consequences.  It is always like this when you work with human subjects, particularly with children.  The rules on this are pretty clear.

First, at the start (the “research phase” if you will) you need to find the children.  Sometimes you are lucky and you have an accurate communication from a parent or former teacher about where a child will go to Kindergarten.  This is maybe 10% of all those you are looking for.  For the remainder, you have only a few options.  You can communicate with their parent(s), and get the information from them.  You can communicate with their former school, who sometimes will have that information.  And, lastly, you can guess.  In many cases, the challenge of the first option is finding a working address or phone number.  People move around more than you think, especially during a recession.  You have tools you can use to find someone, such as the yellow pages, or using Google.  You can also count on parents filing for a change of address with the post office.  In either case, you are sending a lot of mail.  It’s thankful that I have effectively mastered the art of mail-merging.

We do live in a modern age, however, and while people’s addresses change their phone numbers – specifically their cell phone numbers – generally do not.  Now, the mail-merge equivalent of a phone call is a robo-call.  Not precisely the way to keep the trust of a parent.  So, calling “by hand” is also an important part of this phase.  You learn a lot about what courtesy can get you, when you make 30-40 phone calls in a day.   Now, there are several hundred children we are trying to find, so we have many people calling.  Coordinating this effort, and gathering the data, all while keeping that same information confidential – also a challenge.  However, at the end of the day, we did manage to find 71% of all the children.  Not too shabby, right?

That was just the beginning.

Once you find a child, you need to get the permission of the school.  Schools, understandably, have a lot of questions and are protective of the children in their care.  They are acting “in loco parentis” as they say.  You need to be courteous, again, but you also need to be persistent in the face of the fact that a school has a real dis-incentive to work with you.  This is not even to touch on the difficulty of talking with a busy principal or director – any parent with a school age child can tell you how difficult that can be.  You have to try different strategies, such as snail mail or e-mail, to reach through and demonstrate your credibility.  Of those 71% found, we convinced 83% of schools to participate.

Then there is the question of getting that questionnaire to the teacher.  Sometimes, you have a name.  Sometimes, you have part of a name.  Sometimes you have no name.  Sometimes, how you can communicate, and what you can offer to a teacher to complete a questionnaire are governed by regulations, or unions, or both.  I am fairly proud to say I built an automated process to create those mailings to teachers, taking all of those needs into account.  I’m prouder to say we received not one complaint from a Union representative or school district.

There were complications of course.  We had teachers who had retired, or been laid off, and so we needed to send the questionnaires again.  We had children moving in the middle of the school year, thus requiring us to send it to a new address.  A few got lost, or forgotten.  At last count, I’ve personally sent over 1000 pieces of mail, and that is just the teacher communications.  If you count everything together, it’s well over 5000 individual pieces, passing through my hands or the hands of our helpful graduate students.

We got 60% of the questionnaires we sent back.  That is a pretty good rate of return I’m lead to believe, and that has been thanks persistent communication with the teachers and making sure that every care was taken to make sure they got back to us easily.  Pre-filled out envelopes, already stamped, for example.  A follow-up post-card or phone call after a month of no-activity.  It did work, in the end.

Then, of course, we have the data.  Each step in this process produced vast quantities of data, all of which is protected.  This required diligent record keeping, organization, and a substantial amount of automation (it is very helpful to have a computer to deal with information you’re really not supposed to link to a person).  That data system will be a legacy in this project as it’s almost all my doing.  When a child or teacher’s identity is protected, it will be because of something I created, or coded, or planned.

I guess that is the bitter-sweet part of this entire extrapolation, because I will likely not meet the person who will be picking it up again – if that does happen.

The truth of the matter is that the data that was the output of Phase 3, those questionnaires, is quite expensive.  Count in the postage, the long distance telephone fees, the compensation for the teacher’s time, the money paid to the callers, and the salaries paid to myself and my supervisor; that small packet of 20 pages seems like it was made of gold.  It also turns out that “gold” was needed in other parts of NRECE, meaning that Phase 3 was being put off and away, maybe for good.

My contract is good through the end of June, and CASTL has said that they will happily keep me that long.  They want me to put Phase 3 together into cold storage and write a guide for whomever/whenever it is brought out again.  There is also lots of parts of Phase 2 that could use a hand.  But in the meantime, my search is beginning – again.

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Written by Tarsus

March 4, 2010 at 9:12 pm

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