Eden: An Urgent Call for School Transparency — and Giving Parents the Info They Actually Care About

Earlier this week, The 74 published a special series of maps compiled by Max Eden, all looking at the critical information contained in school climate surveys and mapping out responses to those surveys in the country’s two largest school districts — New York City and Los Angeles. (Click on the city names to see the maps, and read more about what Eden says he learned in surveying the safety data.) NYC and LA are unique in that they make their data public. In his final essay, Eden argues that all districts should do the same.

I always gave my parents one-word answers about school.

Dad: “How was class today?” Me: “Good.” Mom: “What did you learn about?” Me: “Stuff.” They wanted to know as much as they could. But I was a boy … and conversation always moved on to other topics. Still, they asked every single day.

And yet most districts haven’t even started to ask students and teachers about their schools.

Even now, as system and state leaders attempt to rethink school accountability, most of the conversation hinges on esoteric adjustments to calculations based on standardized tests. There’s a role for all that, but it’s a limited one.

My parents’ insistent inquiries didn’t stem from a burning desire to understand how some state bureaucrats would calculate the collective results from reading and math proficiency tests. What they wanted to know is what every parent wants to know: Does my child feel safe and secure? Are his peers respectful? Does he feel challenged? Do his teachers actually like teaching at his school? What do they think about his class and the school’s culture?

Nothing would go further toward real, meaningful educational accountability than districts asking these questions and letting parents, teachers, and principals know the answers.

After all, as the old saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. Under No Child Left Behind, the only things measured were reading and math scores, so that’s what got managed. Schools narrowed their curriculum and instruction as teachers “taught to the test” because that’s all that was measured. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, schools have an opportunity to measure more than test scores and hopefully manage their way back to providing a more robust, well-rounded education.

States should leverage ESSA to encourage every school in America to administer a school climate survey. They should, however, shy away from including it as a part of a formal accountability system. Campbell’s law says that the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption and the more likely it will be to distort the subject it’s trying to monitor. We certainly saw this with No Child Left Behind. And we probably don’t want to see what will happen when a school is told “you’ll be labeled failing if we don’t see a 20 percent increase in students who say that their teachers respect them.”  

Rather, the surveys should simply speak for themselves. If parents find out that most students at their child’s school don’t feel safe, don’t feel supported, or don’t feel challenged, then parents will be able to make their own voices heard and hold the school accountable by pressing for answers and changes. If teachers feel they can answer questions honestly, then principals and superintendents will be able to have honest insight into what’s working and what’s not, and manage based on evidence rather than assumption.

Yet this is hardly ever done.

When I set out to ascertain what effect school discipline reform was having on school climate, I realized that it was an almost impossible task. Out of 53 of America’s largest districts, only 20 conducted school climate surveys and made school-level results public, and only New York City had sufficient data publicly available to answer the simple question of “How have things changed according to students and teachers?”

Perhaps more distressing than the fact that students and teachers there say school has become less safe is the fact that it’s next to impossible to know what’s happening anywhere else.

Some major districts, like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Miami, do administer consistent and fairly robust school climate surveys. But parents can only access them by going through a portal on the district website, meaning they can only make comparisons or judgments by painstakingly opening one PDF after another and toggling between tabs. Some transparency is better than none, but parents shouldn’t have to sleuth around to access and comprehend these data; what students and teachers think about local schools should be every bit as open and available as what other folks think about local restaurants.

If less than half of America’s largest and most-resourced school districts conduct school surveys, then the overall fraction of school districts that do so is likely pitifully small. After all, most districts don’t necessarily have the expertise to design and implement surveys. Yet, if district leaders chose to, then every school in America could have a school survey in place by next spring.

That’s because districts don’t have to reinvent the wheel: There are two excellent options they can take right off the shelf.

Last year, the Department of Education launched ED School Climate Surveys, a free and voluntary option for school leaders. The surveys are self-contained, and the data stay entirely within the district and are not sent to the federal government or any outside entities. Or if district leaders want something more tailored or want to use a survey platform to do more than just administer annual tests, they can look to the standout startup Panorama Education. Founded four years ago, Panorama’s surveys are now used in 7,000 schools serving 5 million students. Schools using either survey don’t necessarily have to make the data public. But they should.

After all, every parent wants to know what things are like in their child’s school. And for all our efforts to use “reform” to drive school improvement, we still haven’t really tried what common sense and plain experience suggest may be the single most promising action we could take: letting parents know what’s going on.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, specializing in education policy. See the maps he’s compiled, color-coding schools according to safety surveys, for both New York City and Los Angeles.

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