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Why Does Transparency Stop at the School Level?

Data accountability, accessibility, and transparency are forgotten amidst the many issues in public education today.

It’s hard to imagine the endless file cabinets dedicated to information that can now be stored on a 10GB thumb drive, but that was the reality as recently as 20 years ago. The advent and growth of the internet changed all that. States and Districts began uploading all their most frequently requested data onto their websites. Considering how much evidence is right at one’s fingertips with a simple mouse-click today, it’s disconcerting to think that so much effort is being poured into tracking a plethora of data points that continue to be ignored by everyone but America’s data nerds. Of course, don’t tell the data-entry folks at your local school District that. We wouldn’t want them to lose faith in their efforts.

Still, as public entities, school Districts and state departments of education are legally required to maintain at least some semblance of transparency regarding their operations, and uploading it to a website is more of a time saving effort for them than anything. Instead of responding to individual data requests from thinktanks and journalists, they put what they have to right there in the open. For instance, District budgets are public domain, as are popular data points such as a District’s student demography and academic performance. These are all measured at the school level as well, which is how we do our charter school rankings.

And yet, transparency stops at the school level. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, Districts will be quick to say that they are protecting the privacy of their staff and student body. While we can issue FOIA requests to any public entity we want, those entities are just as legally required to serve as a barrier between the public eye and the individuals within the organization itself. The federal government (especially under the present administration) is known for redacting, and even outright denying, FOIA requests for any number of reasons. Most federal denials are issued under the pretense of  “national security,” even if you are only requesting information on yourself.

Another reason transparency might stop at the school level is that very few people want to dig deeper than the school itself. Overall student demography and the school’s performance grade are usually enough for any researcher, and any extra granularity might be considered superfluous. The only people interested in the guts of a specific school likely know that school well enough already (e.g. parents, teachers, local bloggers, etc), and their anecdotal grasp of the school sways their reading of the metadata.

However, just because schools come up with compelling reasons to restrict information that few people show interest in doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be publicized.


Here are some examples of sub-school data that the American public has a right to see but that is currently unavailable.


Student-level Data

The “school grade” that many Districts issue publicly is all well and good, but we basically trust their methodology without really understanding the student environment beneath that grade. We need to be able to see disaggregated student performance data per school, with corresponding information on the students’ economic condition (using FRL data) and racial designation. Additionally, the District should list any learning challenges/advantages the student might have that might affect their performance, such as English language proficiency (LEP, ELL, ESL, etc), a type of disability (ESE, SPED, etc), and whether or not the child is an academically or intellectually “gifted” student.

To be fair, we usually get all of these reports separately for each school. For instance, go to any DOE’s website and find their data reports or accountability page. There you will be able to find the most recent reports (hopefully in Excel format) for each school in the state, usually broken out by those categories mentioned above (FRL, LEP, ESE, AIG, etc). Some states (like Florida) put the most popular data points all on one sheet, such as their annual School Grades reports that show a variety of performance metrics, as well as the school’s FRL rate, minority rate, and Title I status.

But the level of specificity isn’t always as helpful as it could be. For instance, North Carolina doesn’t even report school-level LEP% since the District is the Title III grantee and is responsible for tracking its own Limited English Proficient student population. You have to email the District for school-level LEP% info. Moreover, some DOEs (like Louisiana) don’t even report an actual value for any school with less than 5% or more than 95% of any given type of student. Any Louisiana school with an LEP population of 3.7% wouldn’t be listed as such. That school would be listed as having an LEP of <5%, and any school with a Free or Reduced population of 96.4% would be listed as having an FRL >95%. This may be fine for the general interest population, but if you’re a new charter school trying to project a Year 1 budget using local public school data, that 5 point variance could be the difference between hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Going deeper than this might get a little invasive, so tracking actual student-level data would be tricky. Students already have a special number assigned to them by their school for tracking their academic development against their cohorts. We could add a second and corresponding number, thereby creating a second tier of privacy for students. Still, it’s hard to see anyone getting on board with publicizing student-by-student data, regardless of how many layers of security we create.

At the minimum, though, every state DOE should attempt to publicly track all relevant student-level data.


Staff-level Data

While student-level data might be hard to justify based on privacy concerns, it’s not as hard to imagine the widespread demand for staff-level data, especially with regard to teachers. Teacher evaluation has been a touchy subject recently, which is stupid given that 1) teachers are public employees and accountable to both students and the American taxpayer, and 2) their success on the job is just as quantifiable as any other employee in any other industry.

What sort of products would American auto makers turn out if they were prevented from tracking assembly line productivity and making HR decisions based on those findings? I’m sure some of you might say “Oh dear, now he’s equating American school children to automobiles,” and I’d say you’re absolutely right, except that the American school child is a priceless vehicle of information and talent that will actually build itself if given the appropriate direction.

Yet, even as crucial as the job of the American Teacher is, the American public really has no clue what their District or local public school considers to be a “good teacher.” It seems that anyone can be considered a good teacher in Indiana, after the implementation of a lackluster accountability system, and even the 0.5% of Indiana teachers that were considered “bad” might still be teaching kids. We have no way of knowing because the state only tells us how many teachers ended up in each category at each school.

On the other end of the country, it would appear that a good teacher is hard to come by in Santa Fe. Whereas Indiana teachers were largely considered “effective,” only 50% of Santa Fe’s teachers earned the same designation on the first go-round, eventually rising to 67% when everything was measured again. Then you have the stories like this one from New York, in which a teacher who had earned a 58/60 rating from her Principal got slammed on test scores and missed the “effective” mark by only a few points, which surely came as a shock to her.

Therein lies the inherent difficulty in creating an agreeable (or at least accurate) teacher evaluation system. About a quarter of the score in teacher evaluations traditionally goes to test scores, but it has been calculated as much as 40% in New York. The rest of the evaluation comes from various other things, another important one being the Principal’s rating of the teacher and even the teacher’s attendance. But the usual suspects are fighting any measurement of teacher effectiveness, questioning what test scores really show as it relates to student learning.

In the absence of a better standard for measuring learning, test scores might be a good start, but focusing on the teacher evaluations themselves is missing the forest for the trees. We want to see the evaluations, whatever they include, or at least the data that go into them. Let’s see test scores broken out per classroom, accompanied by data on class work and special projects. Let’s see the Principal’s review of the teacher’s performance, that way we might be able to sniff out nepotism, such as when a teacher whose students fail the relevant tests still gets a Principal review of 90% or more. The teacher may be a likable person, but if the students aren’t learning, that person might not need to be in the classroom.

But staff-level data doesn’t apply only to teachers, they are just the most popular target because they are the most important piece of the puzzle. Similar scoring and rating methodologies could be extended to Principals and, to a lesser extent, other administrative positions such as school counselors, nurses, clerical workers, cafeteria staff, and bus drivers. The most progress has been made on the Principal front, and it’s said that “at least 36 states have adopted laws requiring principals to undergo regular assessments and increasing the rigor of those reviews.” It’s clear that there is movement toward more accountability at the staff level, but if it’s all being kept a secret, how do we know that it’s working, or even being implemented?

Departments of education should publicize more of their teacher info, not just salaries, demographics, and the number of teachers they have on staff. We want to see their influence.


Facility-specific Data

Ever hear your friends or family talking about how crowded their kid’s public school is? Some states (most notably Florida) allow you to track that. It’s called Facility Utilization on most reports, but whatever it’s called, every District in America should be required to publicize this information. Sadly, many do not.

Facility utilization is especially important for school choice. When writing your charter application, you will be asked to describe the student population you plan to serve (which is why you need the student-level data referenced earlier) and the demand present that will help you meet your Year 1 enrollment goals. One of the most important metrics you can use for justifying local demand is how close to capacity the local public schools are. Districts start to panic when a school hits 90% capacity, because they either have to start to rezone kids (highly unpopular) or build a new school facility (very expensive). If you’re dealing with a neutral or friendly District, you can even cooperate with them and place your charter school in a location where they are experiencing tremendous overcrowding, which is a win for them and you.

Capacity information is important, but the vendors being used at each facility should also be publicized so that local small businesses have the opportunity to bid for that public contract. Districts are technically required to submit public RFPs for schools services and contracts, but how often have you seen one in your local paper? Districts should provide financial statements for services provided on a completely separate sheet from the District budget (which is already public domain), with each vendor itemized and named.


At the end of the day, public education is funded by you, and if local Districts are going to fight your right to school choice, you have a right to understand why. Why is the service your District is providing better than any charter school you could start? Why are your local public schools so much better than any voucher program you might prefer to utilize? How are your tax dollars being utilized (read: wasted) by the local District?

Don’t forget: Public education is a bill you’ve already paid, and you deserve to see the receipt.




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