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Back in 1977, when I was nine years old, my mom stood in the lobby of the Stanford University Medical Center and told her doctor to “go to hell”. Of course, that’s the nicest way I could put it; the language she used was decidedly saltier. While my mother’s words were uncouth — and as a child, left me shocked — the point she was making to her oncologist was bloody well spot-on.

parentpowerlogoAt the time, physicians would evaluate a patient and come up with the best course of treatment. Any questions other than “how long will I live?” or “what will radiation do to me?” would generally be met with a paternalistic “Mrs. Lammé, you need not concern yourself with trying to understand other options. I have chosen the optimum treatment plan for you.”

That did not sit well with my mother. She didn’t want the paternalism of those physicians. So my mother found an oncologist at a different hospital who was willing to treat her as a partner in her health, rather than a bystander. All my mother wanted was a doctor that would treat her as an equal, help to educate her on the available treatment options, and realize that she was well suited to make decisions about the best choices for her own life. It was from this experience that I learned that knowledge is power.

More than 30 years later, as a public school parent who happens to work in education reform, I am reminded of this old adage. The idea that more and better information is the key to making informed decisions remains a reality. As the Data Quality Campaign points out today in its new brief, Empowering Parents and Communities through Quality Public Reporting, is no other place that this is crucial than in American public education.

Making education data available for public consumption is a relatively new concept. This is why the No Child Left Behind Act’s focus on making school performance transparent was a major step in the right direction. As Data Quality Campaign correctly notes, policymakers realized that shining a light on student achievement, especially for poor and minority children, would help in holding states and districts accountable. But while No Child was an important step forward in making data “publicly available”, it and other efforts didn’t necessarily lead to data that is “easy to understand.

As a society, we have made the promise to provide a quality education to every kid. But, are all kids receiving the same promise? The whole point of No Child’s data reporting requirements was to ensure that all parties – from teachers to administrators to elected officials to policy-makers to parents – had full and complete information that would allow them to make the best decisions for kids when it came to education.

When I served on the School Site Council of my son’s elementary school, we delved deeply into the data that was not generally available prior to No Child. As a Title I school with more than 20 languages spoken and over 70 percent of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch, it was critical for us to be able to ascertain how different segments of the campus population were performing. We utilized this data to readjust applicable purchases of materials, teaching staff, and other matters. But we did not just look at a report and make our decisions. I actually had to get trained on what the data meant and how it could be interpreted.

As a software engineer for nearly two decades before I joined the School Site Council. I worked on taking complex data sets in different industries and distilling them into information that was easy to understand and use to take action. But even I needed training to comprehend much of the data that I was required to understand when deliberating how the school should focus its efforts.

Transparent and easily understandable data enables state education authorities, schools districts and individual school sites to identify schools and student populations that are struggling and may need additional interventions or resources, by utilizing data comparability. But, this data has to be understandable and useful. Unfortunately many states aren’t doing well on both counts.

As pointed out in the Data Quality Campaign brief, some states are fully recognizing that data needs to be easy to understand, and presented differently for various audiences. One of the states they highlight is Illinois. The state’s board of education recognized that even though its report card was in compliance with the law, its presentation was an impediment to easy comprehension. So in 2011, the Land of Lincoln’s P-20 council got to work. It convened 60 focus groups – including parents, teachers, and school leaders – to make sure that the new report cards would be useful to everyone.

The state recognized that even though they produced a report card that was far better than previously existed, it was important that they continue to evaluate the report card in future years and adjust it to continually meet the goal of relevance to those who have a stake in public education.

I do not claim to be an expert when it comes to education policy. But I am an expert on what motivates my son. I know what my expectations are regarding what he learns and the environment in which that learning is provided.

If my wife and I are to be better partners to our son’s teachers, if we are to make better decisions regarding his education, we need to know what is going on with his school, especially compared to other schools. We don’t want to just be told what will happen to our son. We want to be provided the options and the information so that we can make the best decisions possible on his behalf. States should follow the lead of Illinois and Ohio and others who have made a good faith effort to recognize that a successful education experience comes from data transparency that promotes true partnership, not paternalism.

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