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We Need More Transparency in Our Public Reporting

• Claire Voorhees

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For years, policymakers have given lip service to the need for complete transparency in our education system. The idea was at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires states to collect and publicly report data on the annual performance of every subgroup in each grade.

This desire for transparency and commitment to collecting annual performance data—combined with the rise of digital learning and statewide longitudinal data systems—has created an ever-growing mountain of data on everything from kindergarten readiness to graduation rates and workforce trends; from student completion of online math lessons to performance on annual summative assessments and the SAT; and from school climate to school funding levels.

For the most part, states are making that mountain of data publicly available to parents and other stakeholders. But, have we accomplished our goal of true transparency?

Public Reporting is Not Enough

A policy brief released today by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) finds that states’ existing public reporting systems are not meeting the needs of stakeholders. According to DQC, data is too often: complex and difficult to understand; buried deep within state department of education websites; posted in unwieldy formats; filled with technical terms; and not presented in a way that answers essential stakeholder questions.

Other organizations, including the Education Commission of the States (ECS) and our team here at ExcelinEd, have recently come to similar, disappointing conclusions. States are complying with federal and state laws on public reporting. In fact, many states are going above and beyond, providing parents and other stakeholders with reams of data on the performance of their child, school, district, and state. However, despite these admirable efforts, parents are not getting the data in a usable format they need and deserve.

That’s why we’re thrilled that today’s brief from DQC calls on state policymakers to achieve true transparency by reforming their public reporting systems. The goal, according to DQC, should be to provide data in “actionable formats tailored to specific stakeholder needs” so that “parents, educators, policymakers, researchers, and members of the public and press have access to the information they need to make good decisions.”

We could not agree more. In fact, this is one of the main goals of ExcelinEd’s ongoing My School Info Design Challenge in which we have asked designers to reimagine the school report cards that states are required to release each year.

But what does a truly transparent public reporting system look like? 

What Does Transparency Look Like?

To achieve true transparency, a state’s public reporting system should have the following characteristics:

  • Easy to find. First and foremost, a state’s public reports should be clearly available on the department of education website and through a quick Google search. Parents should not have to waste time searching, nor should they have to visit more than one site to find all the data they need, whether it’s a school’s grade, information on funding levels, or data on school climate. Furthermore, public data should be available across a multitude of formats, including mobile and print. 
  • Simple and comprehensible. Parents and other stakeholders ought to be able to get a high-level overview of school and district performance at a glance. The public reporting system should clearly explain the overall grade (or other categorization) of each school as well as the components of that grade. The system should also use plain language, not the lingo and acronyms common to many of today’s reports, and should begin with a clear summary and include definitions and explanations that are understandable whether you are a DC policy wonk or a new parent.
  • Tailored to stakeholder needs. As today’s DQC report emphasizes, public reporting systems should work for everyone. They should be online resources that adapt to the needs of the stakeholder, whether that stakeholder is a parent who needs data on school climate for a PTA meeting, an educator who wants to drill down into her students’ weaknesses and adjust his instruction accordingly, a local reported who wants to write a story on school funding levels, or a researcher who needs raw data to explore the impact of a new middle school math curriculum.
  • Actionable. All publicly released data should have a purpose, and that purpose should be made clear to stakeholders. For example, state reporting systems should explain why they contain information on growth in addition to proficiency data. Further, they should also explain to parents why a high-growth school might be a better fit for certain students. Some of the best submissions in our My School Info Challenge have easy-to-use school comparison tools to give parents the information they need to choose the right school for their child. Other stellar submissions have tools that would allow users to easily share school data with friends, family, or advocacy partners through social media.

We thank DQC for their work on today’s insightful brief, and we look forward to continuing to partner with them to help states improve the transparency of their public reporting systems.

About the author

Claire Voorhees

Claire is the National Director of Policy. Previously, Claire worked at HCM Strategists where she provided clients with strategic advice on new approaches to education reform. Claire was also an instructor at Koç University in Istanbul, teaching a comparative course on education rights and policies in the U.S. and Turkey. Before spending time in Turkey, Claire was an associate at Hogan Lovells law firm and served as an associate director in the White House Domestic Policy Council where she assisted senior staff in shaping the Administration’s education policies. Claire began her career as a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 43 in the South Bronx, New York. A native of Washington, D.C., Claire earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a master of science in elementary education from Mercy College, a master of public policy from Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.