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May 20, 2011 standard

When it comes to developing a robust school data system, California hasn’t exactly been the pioneer. As I reported three years ago in A Byte At the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, the Golden State has spent much of the past two decades blundering the effort. The unwillingness of state officials to fully fund the roll out of the first system, California School Information Services, meant that it was only rolled out to 263 out of the states 1,058 school districts. Its current effort, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, has been even more troubled: It took five years for CALPADS to make it from legislative intent to begin full development in 2008. It took another year for the system to become somewhat operational. Last year, it was shut down for a time because of computer glitches; the state’s education department later demanded that the firm handling the development of CALPADS get it ship shape or default on the contract. And all in all, it is barely operational.

CALPADS should be shut down because it isn’t the fully comprehensive data system that policymakers, parents and schools needed in order to improve the quality of education for their students. But that’s not the reason why the state’s once-and-future governor, Jerry Brown, is proposing to do exactly that. Instead, he is cutting additional funding for CALPADS as part of his longer-term embrace foes of school reform and standardized testing. And it gets worse: He also plans to cancel the development of CALTIDES, the teacher performance data system that has long been the bane of the state branches of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. This will mean that the move made by the state two years ago to begin tying teacher evaluations to student test data will also fall by the way side.

Brown’s declaration is pleasing to teachers unions, thoughtless defenders of traditional public education such as EdWeek‘s Anthony Cody (yes, we’re giving the guy more well-deserved ridicule), and national commentators who don’t deserve their perch such as Valerie Strauss. But Brown’s move will do little for taxpayers, policymakers, principals, teachers, children and families, all of whom deserve high-quality data that allows them to make smart fiscal and educational decisions.

For one, the state will likely still have to pay out $7 million to IBM, the contractor charged with developing CALPADS, even if the system isn’t completed. So whatever savings Brown thinks he will reap isn’t likely to be reality. The possibility of Big Blue filing suit to ensure repayment of its contract will also mean additional legal fees that strapped taxpayers don’t want to bear. Meanwhile, the fact that 99 percent of school districts have already begun migrating to CALPADS also means that any move off the system will lead to a second round of transition costs.

Shutting down CALPADS would be bearable if the goal is to move from CALPADS to a better, more-comprehensive data system that ties together K-12, postsecondary data from the state’s three university systems and workforce information; Florida has already done this with great success. But Brown has no discernible intention of doing this. So it just means more dollars down the drain. Eliminating CALPADS also doesn’t address the critical need for data that should be used in making critical decisions on school spending and how to proceed with overhauling traditional school districts. Given the structural deficits Brown is trying to address — and that dealing with those problems will involve revamping state education spending — it is shortsighted to propose eliminating CALPADS funding without a plan to develop a more-robust system.

As for everyone else? As imperfect as CALPADS may have been, it was a key first step in developing a more-comprehensive and useful data system. For one, it helped push districts towards improving the quality of their own data systems; this would have been a first step towards giving the state’s teachers and principals data they can (and, as this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast points out, should) be using for improving student achievement at the school level.  For families, CALPADS also allows for easier transfers of student records; the next step would have been to make the data system more-useful for parents — a problem that has more to do with the state’s emphasis on structuring data for compliance purposes instead of for usefulness in making school decisions.

What Brown could have done is simply begin the process of developing a better school data system. He could have asked the state legislature to craft and pass new legislation that would have reshaped CALPADS to meet the needs of those who will use it — including families, the most-important players of all. He could also have also worked with the state’s education department and finance agency on replacing IBM as the vendor; that move would have made sense given how poorly the company has bungled the system’s development. Brown could have even used the situation as an opportunity to begin pushing for structural reform of the state’s public education governance, an underlying reason why the development of CALPADS has been bungled in the first place. But he didn’t offer any such steps. Instead, Brown has decided that there is no need families and taxpayers to be lead players in education. And that the education crisis that plagues the children of California and the rest of the nation doesn’t need addressing.

But for Brown, this is par for the course. Earlier this year, Dropout Nation criticized the governor for not tackling the state’s byzantine educational governance structure and for not re-appointing school reformers to the state board of education. Though governor may may have overseen the launch of two charter schools during his tenure as Oakland’s mayor, he has proven over and over again that he is in the thrall of the state’s NEA and AFT affiliates, along with other status quo defenders. So he’s not going to address the structural problems of the state’s educational governance system, will all but avoid addressing the systemic problems of low-quality instruction and curricula contributing to low educational achievement — especially among its poorest and minority children, and will just be an obstacle to any reform.

In Brown, California has a governor who lacks the will and vision to overhaul public education for the benefit of the state’s children. The only solutions to counter that lack of will may lie in reform efforts such as those being undertaken by L.A. Unified — or in the decision of families to move out of the Golden State to states such as Indiana, which are fully embracing reform. Hopefully for California, Brown’s tenure will be mercifully short.

May 13, 2011 standard

If you want to understand why it is critical to to use data for improving the quality of teaching and leadership in American public education, just consider Shirley Avenue Elementary in the Southern California suburb of Reseda.

At first glance, Shirley Avenue seems to be doing well. After all, the school, which has an 83-percent Latino population (and with 37 percent of its students considered English Language Learners) has made Adequate Yearly Progress for the  past four years. All of its students, especially its poor students (who make up almost all of the student population) are reaching proficiency as set by California state law.

But a closer look at the performance of the school’s third and fifth grade teachers — courtesy of the Los Angeles Timesrecently-updated database on teachers at Shirley Avenue and other schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District reveals stark differences in the quality of teaching different students can receive each and every day. If anything, if Value-Added data was used as part of AYP, Shirley Elementary would not likely make AYP. In fact, it would likely ranked one of the district’s least-effective schools largely because many of the teachers who have worked at the school over the past seven years haven’t been up to the task. And an even closer look shows sharp variations in instructional quality.

A fifth-grader who was in recent arrival Kathryn Nickerson’s class during the 2009-2010 school years will have lucked out — and chances are, so will the fifth-graders to follow. She is among Shirley Avenue’s — and L.A. Unified’s — most-effective teachers in mathematics, and one of the more-effective English instructors compared to her peers. And this is not just true based on the Times‘ own Value-Added model; her performance remains the same on the three other models used in the database to measure teacher quality. On the other hand, a fifth-grader in the classroom of Nickerson’s longer-serving colleague, Cindy Hillas, wouldn’t fare so well. Hillas is ranked as one of the district’s least-effective teachers in math, both at Shirley Avenue and the district, according to the Times database, and one of the “less-effective” English instructors. And this remains true no matter no matter the Value-Added model used.

Between Nickerson and Hillas is Mary Sahagian, who is on the academic Mendoza line in both subjects; while she fares slightly better on some Value-Added measures than on the one used by the Times, she is still barely treading water. But at least she was better for her students than Edward Goodman, who taught at the Shirley Avenue from the 2005-2006 to 2008-2009 school years. Goodman was not only one of the least-effective fifth-grade teachers in all subjects at that school, he wasn’t exactly doing so well at Liggett Elementary in Pamorama City, Calif., where he served for the previous two years.

For Shirley Avenue’s fourth-graders, things were better. A child taught by Mark G. Gendernalik, a longtime teacher at the school, is getting one of the school’s top-flight instructors in both English and math for the past seven year; he has outranked his peers, according all four Value-Added model found in the Times‘ database. That child’s fourth-grade peer in the class of Gendernalik’s colleague, Rose Cavanagh (also a longtime teacher at the school) will certainly progress nicely in English; she is one of Shirley Avenue’s (and L.A. Unified’s) most-effective reading instructors. But in math, Cavanagh only gets average progress, based on the Times‘ model (although, she does fare better on two of the three other Value-Added models used by the database). For a student who needs a stronger math instructor,a child may be better off with Gendernalik than with Cavanagh. A kid with intense reading needs could benefit from tutelage by either instructor.

And then there is Paul Wainess, who taught both second and third grade at Shirley Avenue in 2010-2011, who is a triple-threat of sorts. Not only has he proven that he can handle improve the performance of seven classes of third graders, he is even capable of teaching kids in second grade. Wainess could be a model for his fellow instructors both at Shirley Avenue and throughout the entire L.A. Unified system. Depending on his other skills (and his own capacity for honing his potential in leadership and social entrepreneurism), he could either be a master instructor or even be placed in the administrative ranks or start a program in which he helps improve student performance.

Certainly the Times database on Shirley Avenue isn’t complete. Data for the 2010-2011 school year isn’t available, nor is there test data on science performance, which are given in fifth grade. But the data available points out something that other research is now starting to show: That the quality of an education within a school can vary from classroom to classroom, and even within the classroom, vary from one subject to another. In some cases, a teacher who is really strong in reading instruction may be a terrible math tutor, while her colleague down the hall is top-notch in that subject. In other cases, a child who falls behind under one teacher while in fourth grade could easily get back on track if the child gets a better teacher in the next grade, and vice versa.

Imagine what a talented principal with strong leadership skills and the ability to hire and fire teachers could do with such data. And it goes beyond simply removing laggard instructors. One possibility: Creating collaborative teaching structures in which teachers strong in reading can handle such instruction for an entire fifth-grade group, while peers talented in math teaching can handle those activities. Another could be that L.A. Unified rewards its top teachers both with bonuses and with recognition of their progress over time. Holding up top teachers as sterling examples of what can be done in classrooms — and even looking at how they do their work — can ultimately help improve the district’s recruitment and training efforts. Meanwhile the data is incredibly useful for parents and families, who should have this information in their arsenal. They can use this data (along with other information) to demand better for their children.

Just imagine the possibilities. But that’s only if the data is available and used.

L.A. Unified has finally begun using Value-Added in both ranking schools and in teacher evaluations; it took the Times‘ series to force the district to do what should have been done long ago. (The district is still playing the political game, with new Superintendent John Deasy joining other L.A. players in demanding that the Times stop publishing information on teacher performance.) States are just starting to now require the use of student data in teacher evaluations. But this is still in infancy, and more importantly, Value-Added data is watered down as sort of a “multiple measure” that renders it useless; we may still have shoddy evaluations instead of rigorous tools that can actually help teachers, principals, families and students. And though the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have conceded some ground on using objective data in evaluations, they are still largely opposed to it; other defenders of traditional public education continue to argue that Value-Added data (and the underlying test data used) are too imperfect for use and doesn’t control for socioeconomic effects in spite of growing evidence to the contrary (and the reality that nothing in the hands of humans will never be perfect).

What status quo defenders should realize is that more-objective data (including other wide-ranging information) can actually improve the quality of education for all children. Besides tossing out laggard instructors, it can also help principals better-use the strengths of their teachers to help students succeed. It will also help break the antagonistic, 20th-century unionism-based model of employee-manager relations that has long dominated schools. By providing principals and teachers with objective performance data (and breaking with the use of less-than-objective evaluations), principals can actually manage teachers instead of simply hoping to move out lemons. It can also promote more-collaborative school environments in which teachers work together.

And for parents, Value-Added data gives them the ability to actually become consumers and lead decision-makers in education. They can use the data to spur overhauls of traditional schools and districts, or decide to use school choice options and send their kids to better-quality options. They can even shop within schools, sending their kids to the better teachers in the building — and signal to principals that change must come. Such parent power is critical to helping everyone — even good-to-great teachers who deserve better than to work with low-quality performers.

When a third of all fourth-graders nationwide are functionally illiterate and 150 high schoolers drop out into prison and poverty, there is no way we can ignore the disruptive potential power of data. It must be harnessed and used to improve the quality of education for every child no matter where they live. And it’s high time to get going.

April 17, 2011 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I look at the how L.A. Unified School District is using value-added data and discuss its disruptive power in transforming American public education. Value-added offers more tools for spurring school reform, learning more about the role of teachers in education, and helping parents get the information they need to improve education for all children.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

 

March 18, 2011 standard

Jerry Yang and David Filo didn’t know what they were doing two decades ago to catalog all the Web sites in the nascent World Wide Web. But what they did was unleashing new forms of data and new approaches to analysis that would revolutionize how we shop, conduct business, buy homes and live our lives. This disruptive power is seen each day as firms such as Amazon ease our shopping (and makes it easier for firms to tickle our proverbial fancies with their wares), search engine such Google (and to a lesser extent, Microsoft’s Bing and Yang and Filo’s Yahoo) to ease the scouring for what was once hard to find information, and countless organizations use the ‘Net for organizing support for their positions or, as in the case of WikiLeaks, reveal black box secrets for all to see. Traditional gatekeepers such as big-box retailers, airlines and old-school media outlets have lost their power to control pricing and the packaging of content (and in the case of weak firms such as Circuit City and Knight-Ridder) have been forced out of business altogether as new players that use the Web as their base technology have taken advantage of the new world.

This disruptive power of data is now beginning to rear its head in education, forcing all the players within it to change the way they operate schools and educate all of our children — reducing the influence of teachers unions, university schools of education and others who have long dominated education decision-making. And that is a good thing. It is high time that American public education embrace the ability of data to shed light on problems, force discussions that have often been stifled (if not outright ignored) and ease pathways to solutions that those who have been the gatekeepers do not want. But we will have to take further steps to make the data more-useful to all players in education — especially our parents, who are demanding (and deserve) to be the consumers and lead decision-makers in schools.

As with the rest of the world, the World Wide Web has played a role in making school data more available to policymakers, school operators, teachers and families alike. Efforts by organizations such as GreatSchools.org (a spinoff of bond rating agency Standard & Poor’s earlier effort to evaluate school spending) has at least been helpful in pushing for greater availability of information on school performance.

But the moves that have made data disruptive in education came earlier than the development of Hypertext Markup Language by Tim Berners-Lee. Starting in the 1970s, the concerns of southern governors such as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and chambers of commerce helped foster the modern school reform movement; the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 by the Reagan Administration, which further raised the alarm about the quality of education in America’s schools, led to other governors to begin taking the first steps towards improving teacher quality (through certification of instructors) and the development of the first curricula standards. By 1986, some 25o commissions and panels were working on school reform, according to Susan Fuhrman (now president of Teachers College).

One of the efforts that came out of all this was the second wave of standardized testing, with students taking more-rigorous exams in earlier grades. The data from those tests began giving policymakers and even some parents a sense of how woeful America’s students were being educated. But the raw scores weren’t enough. A critical question that was not yet answered was how well were students progressing over time, as they moved from grade to grade and from one teacher to another. There were also questions about the role of teachers and schools in student achievement. One researcher, William Sanders, began answering these questions during his time in Tennessee through the development of what would become Value-Added Assessment. Sanders work (which included the development of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, the nation’s first systemic effort at measuring student, school and teacher performance) along with the work of Eric Hanushek (now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution), began to reveal the critical role of teacher quality in education and the need to overhaul how we recruit, train and compensate teachers.

The second step came during the 1990s courtesy of the first wave of curriculum standards development, which forced a change in how tests were given. Once purely diagnostics or simple measures of performance, states began to use tests as ways to hold schools accountable for student achievement — especially among poor and minority students. By 2000, 39 states were using consequence-based testing and accountability, according to a Harvard Journal on Legislation report co-authored by Sandy Kress, Stephanie Zeckmann and Matthew Schmitten. This, along with the use of value-added assessment, would lead to new data on the achievement gaps between whites, blacks and Latinos, between middle class and poor students, and between young men and women. This approach to data, which would be made federal policy thanks to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, would not only force states and districts to figure out how to reform education for all children, but even rally together a new generation of school reformers.

The final wave came after the passage of No Child, thanks to its provision that graduation rates had to be considered alongside test scores as critical measures of student achievement. For years, states and districts got away with inflating their graduation rates by simply dividing the number of students who graduated from high school from the number in junior or senior years. But researchers such as now-University of Arkansas education professor Jay P. Greene, Schott Foundation’s Michael Holzman, and Chris Swanson (now at the education research unit of the parent of Education Week) took a hard look at the numbers and began looking at the progress of students throughout their entire high school career (from leaving 8th grade to graduation). Other researchers, including Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins took it further and looked at how many kids were leaving school before even reaching senior year of high school. Their work on graduation rates and the promoting power of schools exposed the low quality of education provided in our high schools, identified the dropout factories (and by extension, failure mills in earlier grades) that were the major sources of academic failure, and forced states to begin looking at the poor instruction and curricula given to kids long before they reached high school. Their work also forced states to finally be honest in their graduation rate reporting.

The disruptive force of these new sources and ways of analyzing data cannot be overstated. Value-added data on the long-term performance of teachers is what informs the Race to the Top initiative and efforts to replace traditional (and abysmal) forms of subjective evaluation for objective forms of performance management. The impact of data can be seen in the fact that the American Federation of Teachers is now accepting the use of test score data in evaluating teachers (and in supporting milder forms of the kind of quick dismissals of laggard teachers).

It is Balfanz’s work on promoting power that has led to efforts by states and school districts to create early warning indicators that show when kids are falling behind and on the way to dropping out of school. And it is the data on graduation rates and achievement gaps that are now fueling Parent Power movements in states such as Connecticut and California, leading to the creation of Parent Trigger laws that allow families to overhaul the schools their kids attend, and foster new forms of school choice.

The impact of data can also be seen in the participation of political leaders and others in conversations about the reform of American public education. No longer are governors, state legislatures and mayors willing to simply stand by while teachers unions, school superintendents and school boards at the state and local level make policy decisions largely on their own. While this may annoy the Randi Weingartens, Dennis Van Roekels and Diane Ravitches in the status quo, the reality is that education plays far too critical a role in the nation’s economic and social future to be left to so-called experts who have done little and achieved less.

All of this is wonderful. But it isn’t enough. As Dropout Nation noted in December, school data most school data and analysis remains a black box affair, unavailable for easy use by parents, policymakers and even teachers and principals for making smart decisions. Far too many school data systems leave out useful information, explain it in the kind of jargon most parents and laymen cannot understand, or are organized in ways that are useful to no one. Save for California and Indiana, most states do a poor job of defining and reporting chronic truancy — a data point critical in finding out which kids are on the path to dropping out. School spending data that would allow principals to actually serve as true managers of schools and help families learn what they are actually getting for their school dollar is largely non-existent. And even information on the academic progress of English Language Learning students in learning English and moving into regular classroom (and avoiding the path to academic failure) is poorly tracked and reported.

American public education’s penchant for using education for compliance with state and federal is one reason why these data challenges still exist. The low quality of current data systems at the district level is another; in California, for example, there are still districts using Excel spreadsheets to track data that needs to be handled with far-superior software and data systems. There is also the reality that school districts are not private-sector corporations and thus, not required to actually make data easy to use; since families are not considered customers or lead decision-makers in education, districts feel no obligation to make information easier to use.

Then there is the resistance to the use (and even the very existence) of data from defenders of traditional public education. From where they sit, the use of data by families and politicians to hold all players in education accountable for laggard instruction, turgid curriculum and antiquated practices and rules (tenure and degree- and seniority-based pay scales) is both a threat and a promise. The threat is to what remains of their influence over education policy; the promise is to the long-held belief that education decisions should be left to experts alone. As seen in the debate over the use of value-added data in evaluating teachers, they use the reality that data isn’t perfect or always all-encompassing to beat back efforts to expand its use in all aspects of education. Considering that defenders of the status quo demand more engagement from families and communities in schools, this opposition to using and disseminating data is ridiculous and shameful.

But at the end of the day, their opposition will be of little use. You can’t stop a fast-moving train with broken breaks. And data is exactly that. Once information becomes available, those who consume it will demand more. Parents are going to ask for more information, not only on the academic progress of their students and the effectiveness of schools, but even individual data on teacher performance. Considering that a child can go from a high-quality teacher to a low-quality one just by crossing the hallway (and that the quality of instruction varies from classroom to classroom), there will be greater demand or more data on teachers of the kind made available by the Los Angeles Times in its award-winning series last year. It will also force greater scrutiny of the work school districts do in recruiting and evaluating them.

But we cannot count just on the force of data alone. We will need more private-sector and nonprofit players to get into the business of aggregating data and breaking it down into usable chunks. And we will need community-based family information centers that can help families and communities to understand what the data means for kids and for their neighborhoods. These two efforts would help fulfill the Five Codes of Parent Power I have discussed earlier this week on the Dropout Nation Podcast, force teachers and other players to end the anti-intellectualism that plagues American public education, and ultimately make data even more disruptive in education. And ultimately, help replace dropout factories and failure mills with schools fit for our children and their futures.

February 27, 2011 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I discuss the importance of measuring outcomes in education in order to revolutionize education for all children. Arguments by defenders of traditional public education against the use of standardized testing and teacher evaluations fall against the reality that without data, the quality of education for all children will continue to slide past mediocrity.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player or smartphone.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also, add the podcast on Viigo, if you have a BlackBerry, iPhone or Android phone.

December 2, 2010 standard

The news about the latest release of U.S. diplomatic information by WikiLeaks has caused a global uproar, with federal and international diplomatic officials putting its founder in their respective cross-hairs for daring to inform us on matters about which we have always sort of suspected. Certainly the leaks aren’t exactly in the interest of American national security (nor does your editor support the underlying anti-American philosophy of the site itself). But in releasing the information, WikiLeaks has fulfilled two fundamental tenets at the heart of America’s democratic republicanism: That American citizens have the right to know how their government conducts its activities; and that a free press — including the ability to leak government documents — is critical to keeping government accountable to the citizenry.

One wouldn’t think American public education needs a WikiLeaks of sorts. After all, we have plenty of school data (125 data collection regimes in California alone); graduation rates and test scores are already available in one form or another. But the reality is that most school data and analysis, like national security information, is a black box of sorts, making data unavailable for  easy use by parents, policymakers and even teachers and principals for making smart decisions. The kind of longitudinal, value-added analysis of student, school and teacher performance that families and school systems need to improve education is also not widely available.

Most state data systems remain difficult for even sophisticated researchers to use. Florida, Indiana and even California (whose overall data systems are neither fully longitudinal nor in great shape) are still the easiest-to-use systems for laymen even two years after I co-wrote A Byte At the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era. School district data systems are generally even worse. More often than not, it’s as hard to use district Web sites out how to find something as simple as information on how to enroll in a particular school as it is to find out test and enrollment data.

When it comes to value-added data, it is even worse. As seen in the battle in October between New York City’s Department of Education and the American Federation  of Teachers’ affiliate there, teachers unions will do all they can to stop any analysis of teacher performance through the use of student test data. If anything, there is clearly need for a WikiLeaks of sorts; parents should be able to know the quality of the teachers who teach their kids.  And the growing evidence shows that teachers are the most-critical factor in student achievement.

One underlying problem is that education data has largely been used for complying with federal, state and local regulations, not for actual use as a consumer good. This is, in part, the natural consequences of a government-controlled system of education, and a culture that has little regard for the importance and use of data. The dysfunctional political structures of state systems of educational governance is also a culprit; as seen in California, the Progressive-era decentralization of school governance (ostensibly meant to get politics out of education) often ensures little cooperation on availing all forms of school data.

The other reason why school data remains a black box affair: The fear, especially among the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other defenders of education’s status quo (and even among school reformers who should know better like Rick Hess) that data and analysis will be used by families and politicians to finally hold all players in education accountable for laggard instruction, turgid curriculum and antiquated practices and rules (tenure and degree- and seniority-based pay scales) that don’t actually work in fostering the cultures of genius needed to improve education. This not only can be traced back to the traditional disregard for data among education circles, but to the conceit held by many of them that education is a domain for experts alone.

This is shameful. As much as we demand parents to be actively engaged in education, we don’t provide them the data they need in order to be informed players. Just as importantly, education is as much a consumer good as it is a civil right. As the people who pay for the operation of school systems and the guardians of the customers (our kids) who must attend them, parents should have easy access to data and should have the tools needed to understand what data actually means for their kids.

School choice activists among the school reform movement should be particularly interested in making widely accessible and understandable school data a reality. Parents can’t exercise smart choices without being fully informed. Those who argue that public schools are essential to preserving the nation’s democratic republican values should also want widely-available school data. After all, you cannot make sure schools do the job of preparing kids to fulfill their economic and social destinies unless you have data. You can’t address achievement gaps or stem the nation’s dropout crisis without knowing what schools are actually doing and measuring results.

Organizations such as GreatSchools.org (whose origins date back to ratings agency Standard & Poor’s efforts a decade ago to evaluate school spending) have begun providing some useful data on school performance. The Los Angeles Times helped move the ball further earlier this year when it published value-added performance data on 5,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District; for parents and for the rest of us, it is more evidence that teachers are the most-important element in student achievement (and has shown how state laws and union collective bargaining agreements have promoted laggard instruction, desultory performance management and lax operational management within traditional districts). All these steps should be applauded and supported.

But we have not yet seen the kind of collective effort to provide deep, understandable information that WikiLeaks is now making a standard in understanding foreign policy and national security. We don’t have armies of volunteers ready to conduct value-added analysis or even build robust data systems akin to a Wikipedia. Nor do we have companies that are working to develop such systems (which would help foster a true free market for school data in the long run). We need more news outlets and school reform groups willing to challenge state laws that ban the use of student data in measuring teacher quality by actually getting the data and doing the work. The citizen’s right to know — and the importance of providing a high-quality education to every child — should be paramount.