Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Someone Is Doing the Department of Education's Job for It, Thank Goodness

A decade ago, I founded the Education Rights Center at Howard University School of Law.  One of my driving motivations was the notion that everyday people needed basic information about their schools and rights.  There was a plethora of data embedded in databases and spreadsheets, and there was a ton of great social science research out there reaching conclusions about that data.  It seemed to me that the best entity to make sense of all of this was the U.S. Department of Education.  After all, the vast majority of this data is compiled and managed by the Department.  And a great deal of the research was either funded by the Department or housed in its clearinghouse website.  

It was also my sense that the Department did next to nothing to be of help to everyday folks.  Only sophisticated researchers could do anything with the data.  For those who haven't waded into the Department's databases, it suffices to say that the data is "raw."  Simply looking at that data tells you next to nothing, unless you are just wondering how many students go to a particular school, how many teachers the school has, how many minority students attend the school.  That information, however, is practically meaningless.  It only has meaning when you place it in context.  For instance, you know elementary school X has 542 students, but what is the average size of an elementary school?  The website won't tell you.  So what do you really know about the school.  Similarly, you know how many minority students attend the school, but what is the percentage of minority students in the school?  It won't tell you that either.  You have to calculate the percentage yourself by combining the raw data.  

I could go on, but the point is that the Department wasn't telling parents and students things they might want or need to know, particularly if they thought something was wrong with their school or they were just curious.  I quite simply thought it a disgrace that our Department of Education couldn't put its vast resources to work to make its data somewhat helpful for everyday people.  If it did that, it might put folks in a better position to protect their own rights.  

Well, at the time, it wasn't doing that, so I thought my little center could help.  We did a fair amount of work tackling just two aspects of the public knowledge deficit.  We focused on student rights in discipline and special education.  That work eventually migrated to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and its parental empowerment program.  We also started on the data, but given the limitations of my skills and the available support personnel, I could not get the project to a point where I was comfortable going live on the internet.

That backstory is what makes today such an important day in my mind.  I woke up to find that ProPublica just took a huge bite out of the problem.  It released a web project called Miseducation: Is There Racial Inequality at Your School?

The website is a beautiful and user friendly one-stop shop to some important inequalities.  You don't need to be an expert.  You don't have to run yourself around in circles trying to figure out which weblink to follow.  All you have to do is look at the map and click on your school district and then your school if you want.  It then opens up to incredibly helpful information on the school's demographics, graduation rate, access to gifted and talented and various other courses, student-teacher ratios, teacher credentials, teacher absenteeism, suspensions, expulsions, law enforcement referrals, and alternative school referrals.

There is still important information that parents need to know that they won't find here, like special education rates, English Language Learner data, school funding, and segregation.  But that is not a critique of ProPublica.  This website is, quite frankly, the most important one I have seen.  It is far better than what I had envisioned for myself.  And that other information is slowing becoming available elsewhere.  Vox, for instance, created a great website on school segregation that works in ways very similar to ProPublica's.  Edweek, Bruce Baker, and the Education Law Center have been doing tremendous work on the school funding front.

But everyday people shouldn't have to be experts, go to five different websites, or rely on the good graces of researchers or the media.  And they should not have to trust that private individuals are getting it right.  The Department of Education should do that work for them.  Fortunately, ProPublica is showing that there are others out there who can do the Department's work for it, if it won't (although I cannot vouch for its methods).

I would be remiss, however, if I did not offer one caveat and acknowledge the hard work that a lot of people have been doing at the Department over the past decade.  The Department of Education made a huge step forward with its Civil Rights Data collection during the Obama administration, and, under the leadership of Catherine Lhamon, the Office for Civil Rights started putting out some great reports that were useful to advocates.  Without that work and that of a lot of unnamed staff at the Department, the work of ProPublica would not be possible. 


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