The DME Boundary review should happen WITH us, not TO us

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Parent (and citizen) engagement efforts around large changes to policy or structure seem to follow a predictable formula. Big announcements, surveys, working groups, decisions, and big announcements at the end (with the media reporting on the public or leaked bits here and there). I have participated in more of these efforts than I can count. I’m always happy to share my opinion and experiences, but are these inputs helpful without context? Doesn’t it make more sense to educate parents about how existing policies are actually playing out, before asking their opinion?

It’s exciting to see agencies like Washington, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB), and most recently, the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME) take steps towards releasing data. Not for the sake of transparency, but to get work done. The most visible recent example is the DME’s Boundary review process. It started with the usual, formulaic elements of an Advisory Committee, surveys, working groups and promise of engagement, but has of late, started to infuse the conversation with the broader education community with information and data.

This is important, because it enables parents and education stakeholders to contribute to this process in a way that is more meaningful than simply offering personal opinions. We can now react to policy questions based on how they are actually playing out at the Ward and city level (not just our own or our neighbor’s experiences). We can consider our positions and understanding of impact to all students, not just those who attend our schools or live in our neighborhoods.

The community information packets distributed at the April 5 working group contain a TON of rich information, demographic projections, scenarios at the school, cluster of schools, and ward levels. It’s clear that the DME’s team and Advisory Committee are carefully weighing not just today’s situations, but how these will look based on what our city will look like in 2017 (based on projected population of 0-3 and 4-11 year olds). Because the information has been published in a spreadsheet format, anyone with basic excel skills can compare data across schools and wards. An enthusiastic GGDCEDU reader weighed in on the DME’s policy examples by citing the data.

Of course, this does not mean much for folks who are not used to working with data. This is where the media and other intermediaries come in. Because the DME released the proposed boundary changes, the Washington Post was able to build dynamic maps with these new boundaries.

feederThe DME also released feeder pattern analysis for DCPS elementary, middle and high schools. However, because OSSE released this data in February, Code for DC civic hacker, Chris Given, was able to create a dynamic view of this data for ALL DCPS and PCS schools. This creates another opportunity for parents and education stakeholders to see how today’s policies are playing out, without needing extensive data skills.

All these exciting developments around data come with their own new problems. As I looked around at the participants of the Center City Working Group on April 5, I couldn’t help but notice that the crowd was full of the ‘usual suspects.’ I saw many parents and advocates who are engaged and to some degree, data savvy (or connected with data savvy networks). This begs the question of whether access to additional data will help families who are offline and/or unable to attend the ‘live’ boundary discussions? In my opinion, the risk of their interests not being represented in the discussion becomes even greater.

I don’t have any ready-made solutions to address this risk, but imagine that if DCPS, OSSE, DCPCS, DME, parent-driven community networks and perhaps DC Public Libraries and DC Parks and Recreation, worked together, we could reach many, if not all families. The boundary review, and all efforts of this nature, should not be something that happens to us, but something that happens with us.

How will you help?

How can data fix the DC middle school problem?

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The 2012/13 school year was a tumultuous one for my family, because it marked the end of my older child’s time with the most influential community of his young life – his elementary school. My husband and I joined the throngs of parents of 4th graders to explore DC’s middle schools, and the possibility of “greener pastures” outside of out DC Public School’s formal feeder pattern. While I found the process inefficient and nerve-wrecking, more frustrating than the disparate applications and time off work school for open houses, tours and shadow days, was the fact that this hysteria was not so much a personal problem, but a city-wide epidemic.

Parents need information to navigate choice

In spite of frustration, I considered myself lucky to have a strong network of friends, whose older children served as examples of “education success”. I recognized that many other parents may not have this advantage. I felt then (and still do) that if the “education powers that be” were to widely share the data they collect about us, our kids and their schools, then parents would eventually have a better chance at equal access to information and education options.

In October 2012, at the height of my “where will my child go to middle school” angst, I learned that a local chapter of Code for America was forming (Code for DC). Inspired by visualizations I’d come across of Capitol Bikeshare trips (here and here) , I thought understanding the patterns behind where students actually enroll (and at what grades), would be helpful to parents making decisions around schools. Neighbors could get a sense of where children are enrolling, even if they were not necessarily sharing this among themselves.

I showed up at Code for DC’s kick off meeting, in the least productive way possible. I pitched a problem without suggesting a solution and even worse, I had no data. Lucky for me (and for DC families everywhere), well-respected data scientist, Harlan Harris, took up the cause. Of course, my enthusiasm and Harlan’s talent only took us so far. It was not until we connected with the forward-thinking data team at DC’s State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), that this effort got traction. Over the past year, OSSE has been working with parents, advocates and Code for DC to fill the public’s demand for education data. OSEE launched a data rich school report card, and then released the underlying raw data.

openschoolsAccess to this data has enabled the incredibly talented Code for DC education team (Harlan, Tom, Chris, Aaron, Sherry, Elle, Laura, and everyone else who has contributed) to develop a few tools to help parents. One that visualizes where children go to school, based on where they live (and for each school, where children come from). There is also now a school chooser app (try it!), which enables parents to rank qualities important to them in a school and identify schools where neighbors send their children.

These are helpful for individual research, but what about overall systemic change? Finding the right school for your child is terrific, but also heartbreaking if you are relying on a lottery to gain access.

Parents need data to meaningfully engage in policy change

In the meantime, middle schools have received renewed attention due to the Deputy Mayor of Education’s school boundary review process. Parents have been invited to participate in the boundary review and the media has followed it closely.

Chart courtesy of Bill Horne

Chart courtesy of Bill Horne

Parents have spoken out about the need for quality middle schools and these concerns play out at 5th grade, where students leave the DC Public School system. We’ve learned that very few students feed into their in-boundary schools (and if they are exiting at 5th grade, they are not staying in the formal feeder patterns). But where do they ACTUALLY feed?

A first step towards answering those questions came out of a 1.5 day hackathon held over a weekend for Open Data Day. The education team organized by Code for DC took 8 years of feeder data released by OSSE on a Friday night, and by Sunday morning, built a visualization of how children are flowing among DCPS and DC charter schools. (I told you they were talented!)Actual Feeder Patterns

While the data is limited to one year, and cohorts of less than 5 students have been censored for privacy, it’s the first time we have been able to see the informal feeder patterns for every DCPS and charter school. It answers the questions of for each school, where do kids come from and where do they go?

What’s more, because the data is now released (i.e., open data), ANYONE can analyze it for their school, for their neighborhood, or for the entire system. If you are not a data ‘geek’ yourself, but have ideas around how to analyze the data, join the next Code for DC meetup, or grab the closest data geek in your life and get to it.

Regardless of how you consume this information, be sure to do three things.

  1. Thank OSSE, the DC Public Charter School Board and the DME for the data they have released to date.
  2. Ask for more.
  3. Share your work, so we can all benefit.