“In God we trust; all others bring data.” That quote from a trade magazine for school business officials aptly sums up the No Child Left Behind Act’s primary impact on public schools: Information is king.
So why do so many school web sites make is so difficult to find disaggregated student achievement data, student demographics, teacher qualifications, and other data required by NCLB?
And, while burying NCLB reports in ill-constructed Portable Document Format (PDF) files several layers down in your site might meet the letter of the law, it certainly doesn’t meet the act’s spirit of making school data more transparent to the public.
Designed to empower parents by giving them unprecedented access to hard data, NCLB recognizes that for far too long, schools could mask underachieving students by keeping them out of testing programs or hiding low test scores by reporting overall averages.
As the nation’s obsession with accountability nears its zenith, parents, taxpayers, and other stakeholders want access to data at their convenience and without any spin.
This makes the web an ideal vehicle for data-hungry parents, especially those whose districts provide some form of public school choice.
Today’s parents shop for schools like never before, even if their districts still assign students based on where they live, rather than on where their parents would like them to go.
Parents want and need information on what their children will learn, how they will be taught, and by whom. They want to know how large the school is, and whether their child will be lost in the shuffle.
They want to know what kind of degrees their children’s teachers will have, and how many of the high schools’ graduates attend college, score well on the ACT or SAT, take college-level courses, or earn academic scholarships.
Parents want to know what the free and reduced-price lunch count is, what percentage of kids don’t speak English, whether gifted programs are available, and whether special-needs students are welcomed and included.
If parents work, after-school offerings are critical, and public schools would be wise to follow the model of many successful private schools, which are making sports, piano, violin, dance, karate, tutoring, foreign language, and other traditional “extras” part of the after-school program.
Having worked in public education for more than 20 years, including two urban school districts, I understand many school leaders’ reluctance to post such data prominently.
Too many schools that are doing yeoman’s work in teaching at-risk kids to excel in reading, writing, mathematics, and other core subject areas might be mislabeled as low achieving or even failing by new state and NCLB guidelines, while their more affluent counterparts with highly educated parents and relatively homogenous student bodies seemingly skate by unscathed.
For many educators, it’s like comparing the mortality rates of the sickest, most complex patients seen in a hospital’s intensive-care unit (ICU) with the generally healthy women on the obstetrics floor–it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison that yields little insight.
We also know that some–and, in a few areas, many–parents will misuse the data, fleeing the increasingly diverse schools that serve high-poverty students.
However, we can’t fix problems we don’t know exist, and for far too many years, data on the black-white student achievement gap, the inferior teaching credentials of many urban educators, and gross inequities between poor urban and rural schools and their suburban counterparts (even in the same districts) have collectively served as one of our nation’s dirtiest little secrets.
It’s time to shed the light on these statistics, not as a means for blaming educators or using NCLB as a Trojan horse to destroy public education as we know it, but as a clarion call to change public policy in ways that will realistically address the exponential needs of our most vulnerable students.
NCLB is grossly underfunded, and just as it takes additional dollars and expertise to staff an ICU, it takes additional dollars and expertise to provide at-risk kids with the intensive, ongoing educational interventions they’ll need from birth through high school graduation.
Hiding your data isn’t going to change these realities. So boldly go where few school systems have dared to go and post all of your data on your web site for the world to see, preferably with a link from your home page and a user-friendly search function.
Take a tip from GreatSchools.net and explain what the various tests mean and how they’re used, what they show–and what they don’t show. Use easy-to-understand terms and give definitions for education jargon and acronyms like IEP, AYP, SAT, ACT, EMR, GPA, and so on.
And, because today’s parents are going to shop for schools whether you like it or not, make it easy for them by adding search functions that treat their children like the individuals they are.
In addition to having truly parent-friendly information and easy-to-access school profiles available in multiple languages, GreatSchools.net also has one of the slickest examples of this technique.
Before you assume that web site data will only benefit your community’s more affluent or highly educated parents, conduct a survey or telephone poll to make sure your assumptions are accurate.
When North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) introduced its family choice plan a few years ago, we were amazed that more than two-thirds of all parents used some form of technology to select their children’s schools.
CMS’s district-wide poverty rate hovers around 40 percent, and more than 80 native languages are spoken in its schools. Yet one-third of all parents used the district’s online application process, while another one-third used its interactive voice response system (via telephone).
When communicating with parents, however, no one channel is going to serve all audiences equally well. In addition to the web, make sure your NCLB communications plan includes face-to-face opportunities as well as the more traditional school newsletter or note sent home in the book bag.
When you make your data transparent–the good, the bad, and the ugly–you show parents you don’t have anything to hide, nor anything to be ashamed of.
“Desegregation was about equal opportunity,” says CMS Superintendent James L. Pughsley, whose district was recently recognized as one of the top five urban school systems in the country for increasing student achievement among all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. “Now it’s about equal results.”
Believing that all kids can learn isn’t enough. When every school is a good school, educators and parents have nothing to fear from NCLB.
Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.