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How Transparent is School Data When Parents Can’t Find it or Understand it?

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Mosi Zuberi stands in the hallway of the DeFremery Recreation Center after an Oakland REACH meeting.  (Jenny Abamu for The Hechinger Report)

When Mosi Zuberi learned that his 18-year-old son, Kaja, might not graduate from McClymonds High School in Oakland, he anguished over his parenting missteps, wondering where he had gone wrong. Yet, after seeing data from the California School Dashboard and learning that close to one-fifth of McClymonds’ students were not graduating, he mentally shifted some accountability to the school, seeing a systemic failure to meet the needs of all students.

Zuberi, like many parents across the country, felt he could have been a better advocate for his child had data about the school been more explicit and easier to find.

Data has become particularly relevant for parents whose children attend low-performing schools. It can answer questions about school safety, disciplinary actions taken against certain student groups, graduation rates, attendance and academic performance. Several parents with children in low-performing schools view a child’s academic struggles as an individual responsibility — their child’s fault, or their own — but access to and understanding of school data can help them identify broader problems. For example, is only their child reading below grade-level or are a majority of the students? With better understanding, they can take action — invest in a tutor if the problem is isolated, for example, or demand that their district spend more on reading programs if the issue is widespread.

Many parents, however, experience educational, technological and language barriers to accessing and understanding data, limiting their ability to make informed decisions about their children.

To address this problem, grassroots parent-networks have been sprouting up to give parents the tools they need to make use of public data systems. In addition, federal and many local governments are advocating for policies that would make educational data — similar to what Zuberi saw on the California School Dashboard — more accessible, transparent and helpful to parents. In January 2017, the Department of Education issued guidance informing local education officials about the need to produce public “report cards,” with data about student achievement, graduation rates and other indicators in concise “language that parents can understand.” These changes could offer parents like Zuberi a deeper understanding of the educational systems in their communities.


Zuberi admits that he was not aware of McClymonds’ negative indicators on school climate and graduation rates before school officials called him and Kaja in to tell them that Kaja would not graduate. He described that January 2017 meeting as “emasculating,” saying that a teacher seemed to ignore him as she told Kaja he would fail her course and offered no options to change the situation.

“I was going through the meeting like, ‘don’t break down, stay strong,’ and I heard my son call out to me and say, ‘What do I do?’” Zuberi recounted. “I have been misled. I misled my son, sending him to that school saying it was a place he should go, but it wasn’t.”

Soon after that, Zuberi pulled Kaja out of the school to complete his final courses online, so that he could graduate on time. But the experience left him uneasy about his younger children, still in district schools.

In a search for answers, Zuberi came across and joined The Oakland REACH, a grass-roots parent organization started in 2016 that canvasses in high-needs areas in the city. The organization goes school-to-school and door-to-door to provide parents with tools to help them access, understand and use school data to hold officials accountable for academic outcomes.

Hakeem Bey’s laminated list of Oakland schools’ achievement data, which he uses while canvassing for Oakland REACH. (Jenny Abamu for The Hechinger Report)

“When parents see the data about their schools, they give us this look like, ‘This can’t be right,’ ” explained Hakeem Bey, a parent-leader who canvasses for the organization, pointing to a laminated paper list of school achievement data he takes around with him. “Then they don’t want us to leave because they wonder, ‘What can I do now?’”

Canvassers like Bey use that opportunity to invite parents to be learn about and apply to their fellowship program, a ten-session course that provides $200 vouchers for refurbished laptops (through its partnership with the nonprofit Tech Exchange), teaches parents digital literacy and shows them how to access and understand school data. “Everything is online now,” Bey said. Parents also learn how to use that data to advocate for change at school board meetings and with high-power community officials. On top of that, Oakland REACH gives parents a $500 stipend upon course completion.

Such efforts are critical, as an estimated 22.8 percent of households in Oakland don’t have a desktop or laptop at home, and 18.9 percent of households don’t have internet subscriptions, according to the 2016 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. (In neighboring Berkeley, the survey reports that only an estimated 8.1 percent of households lack a desktop or laptop, and just 10.3 percent of homes don’t have internet subscriptions.) Families who don’t have access to the internet at home, due to a lack of hardware or broadband availability, often use their phones to access websites. Smartphones, however, offer limited access because several school data systems are more difficult to navigate on mobile devices.

Bey said that as Zuberi goes through the course, things will begin to change for him, the same way they did for Bey when he first joined the program.

Bey went through the fellowship program in 2017, and the data he saw showed him that, although his four children were in schools in a safe neighborhood in Oakland, a majority of students at the school his two elder children attended did not perform well on math and reading state exams.

After going through the fellowship, he moved his eldest son, a 10th-grader, to a higher-performing charter school. He wanted to send his eighth-grade daughter there, too, but transferring to another school isn’t always easy: She is no. 126 on the waiting list.

This situation still makes Bey anxious. He regularly checks data on academic achievement and outcomes at his daughter’s school, and those numbers haven’t improved to his satisfaction. Despite the fact that Bey’s children are doing well individually, he remains worried.

“Every [school] break, they have some summer reading program, because I am just trying to do extra on my end,” Bey said about his children. “I feel like their grades are all great, but my mindset is like, ‘you are giving me A’s and B’s but are they actually getting grade-level work if the whole school is behind?’ That’s what scares me.” Bey says such thinking reflects analytic skills taught during his fellowship experience.

Learning about and logging into data systems is only part of the struggle for parents. District data portals frequently go through iterations, changing the way indicators are calculated and the jargon used to describe them. After each change, parents must relearn how to interpret the data, which can be a disincentive for parents who work many hours to make ends meet.

Shoniqua Kemp, left, and her friend LaTonya Peterson inside the Detroit Parent Network building. (Jenny Abamu for The Hechinger Report)

In Detroit, Shoniqua Kemp, a low-income single parent, has struggled to stay informed about her children’s education. After multiple suspensions, Kemp’s son dropped out of high school during his junior year. Concerned about her younger, 17-year-old daughter, Kemp joined the Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit organization. In addition to encouraging community engagement, the group shed light on something Kemp hadn’t thought much about during her son’s experience: school data.

Unlike Bey, Kemp has had poor experiences with charter schools, so she plans to keep her daughter in Osborn Academy of Mathematics, her district-run neighborhood school. She hopes the teen will have a more promising academic trajectory than her brother did and will get into and graduate from college.

Yet most of the data coming out of Osborn brings Kemp more stress and frustration rather than a sense of empowerment. According to the state data dashboard, only 7.98 percent of students met proficiency targets on math and English language arts exams during the 2016-17 school year and only 8.38 percent of students showed academic growth.

Asked if she was concerned about the poor performance of the school, Kemp broke out in tears, saying she had spoken with teachers and the school principal about academic achievement, school attendance and graduation rates — but still sees no improvement.

Kemp also said that frequent changes to the MI School Data Parent Dashboard For School Transparency website — a report card launched last year by the Michigan State Department of Education (MDE) — have made it difficult for her to understand and interpret.

“The state of Michigan has recently revamped that system, and for me, as a parent who understood it prior to them changing it, it’s horrible,” said Kemp, noting that she was trained by the Detroit Parent Network to read the previous MDE system and has difficulty with the new platform’s jargon. “I don’t even go to it anymore. I can’t understand it.”

Researchers tracking state and local district data say Kemp’s situation is not unusual. They often see data portals that claim to be designed for parents but are filled with professional jargon and lack contextual meaning.

Using an app called Hemingway, the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that reviews the accessibility and usefulness of public school data, analyzed the language on so-called state report cards in 17 states in September 2017. They found that in 11 out of 17 states, the language was equivalent to a college sophomore’s reading level — or higher.

By comparison, most public presidential addresses are on a sixth- to eighth-grade reading level, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University.

“When we make [report cards] difficult to access and use, we are in a sense obscuring our ability to understand how schools and students are performing,” said Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign.

Even her team, which includes people with master’s degrees, has difficulty understanding student reports and data, she said: “People who are fluent in English, well-educated and seeking degrees in education policy struggle with this, too.”

Kowalski also notes that parents of English language learners are often shut out from understanding school data because it appears only in English. She is hoping to see a change from state and local governments.

Kemp hopes these changes can be done, to help other parents like her who want to help their children get a better education, but are often thwarted by barriers to data.

“My consistent prayer is that people will become more aware of the pertinent data that they need to serve their purpose, and what it is going to take to bring all of our children to success,” said Kemp. “At some point, we will move together on one accord for our children’s future aspirations. I do believe it. It might be far-fetched, but I believe.”


This story about education data for parents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.  Jenny Abamu is a reporter for EdSurge, a company that reports on education technology through newsletters, research and news.

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