O’Keefe & Rotherham: Data Should Tell Parents How Their Kid’s School is Doing. Right Now, It Doesn’t

In May, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced, “parents know — or can figure out — what learning environment is best for their child.” Her spokeswoman Liz Hill backed her up, saying parents don’t need “more data sets, they need more options.”

No data sets? Wonks, to the barricades!

Sure, there is a common-sense appeal to this kind of talk, but it’s heresy for those of us who think accurate data and strong accountability systems are important. It’s also not totally off-base. Yes, DeVos and her team are wrong to dismiss data and accountability out of hand. The 74’s David Cantor wrote recently that this approach “should be seen as an attack on the idea that school quality matters.”

Yet DeVos has a point that today’s accountability systems rarely serve parents’ basic needs when they choose schools. Right now, states are multitasking too much with their accountability systems — trying to serve policymakers, educators, and families all at once — with families usually ranked last. It’s not that policymakers don’t care about families. Rather, too many policymakers assume that the information they need is the same information parents want.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a good opportunity to step back and think about the purposes accountability systems serve, and who needs what information to make informed decisions.

Right now, advocates and policymakers are debating how best to build better school accountability systems under ESSA. Bellwether tried to inform this debate by partnering with the Collaborative for Student Success to convene an independent review of state accountability plans. Generally, experts agree that good accountability systems should help states define, measure, and achieve higher goals for equity and excellence in education, by rewarding schools doing well and intervening in schools doing poorly. That puts a premium on accountability systems using the best available data to give a holistic, accurate picture of quality and set ambitious goals.

But one rating or report card cannot be all things to all stakeholders, and there are tricky tradeoffs to manage. Education wonks care about subgroup growth metrics, comparable graduation rates, and policy elements. These measures are critical for equitable and effective accountability systems, but they don’t necessarily resonate with families.

If parents don’t find data on their school useful or usable, it is a big missed opportunity. Despite decades of data showing that far too many students are not getting the education they need and deserve, a survey just last week from Learning Heroes found that 90 percent of parents think their child is on track in school. At the same time, the Data Quality Campaign recently found that only 38 percent of parents strongly agree that they have easy access to the information they need about their child’s education.

Into this dearth of useful data blithely goes the choice debate — even as we know that, the protestations of the Trump Education Department’s press secretary notwithstanding, healthy markets depend on good information. If we want parents to push their schools to do better, and advocate for their children and their community, this disconnect is a problem.

When parents don’t use or understand all the datasets wonks cherish, the response is to “educate” parents and build “data literacy.” These measures can help, and some valuable work is going on to empower parents. But no one should assume parents are ignorant just because the information they need is not what we prize on a state education agency website or in a federally mandated report. Most parents want to know how their child is doing in school and what they can do to support their child’s future. A comparison to a school halfway across a state matters for policymakers, but less so for parents who don’t intend to relocate or can’t move because of their circumstances. They want to understand their school in the context of their community and the choices available to them.

At the very least, most states should overhaul their shamefully bad websites to provide better information for parents, who are, at least ostensibly, stakeholders. What metrics could families find useful? Among others, information about parent satisfaction, climate, course availability, school themes and focus, attendance — of both teachers and students — and test scores

in a context in which parents can easily use and understand them, such as easy comparisons to state, district, and school averages, and their own child’s performance.

More importantly, states should think critically about how their accountability system functions for families. The Foundation for Excellence in Education recently held a competition to generate new ideas for better school report cards. The contest generated some innovative models, but so far states have been slow to put these ideas into action.

Where legislative mandate and usability collide, states need to think creatively and do more than the minimum. States and school districts need to think deeply about what information parents actually need to be active partners in their children’s education, to advocate thoughtfully, and to choose a school (where that choice is available). As the measures we use to assess schools and districts get more precise, complex, and nuanced, maybe the needs of parents might be better served by different measures and reporting systems from top to bottom — and clear summative measures that are easily understandable.

The people saying that parents don’t need data are wrong. But parents need information designed and communicated with their needs in mind, and that may be different than what the policymakers designing accountability systems want and need. Rather than trying to get one accountability system to do everything, states should give parents the right tools for their job — supporting their child.

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