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.