Parents Press for More Open Data on County Schools

Parents Press for More Open Data on County Schools

Advocates say better access to statistics could uncover disparities, illuminate areas for improvement

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The county school system is being pressured by education advocates to provide easier access to more user-friendly, transparent data.

They say the existing system is a hodgepodge that makes it difficult to analyze trends and make projections that could, for example, bring about ways to provide equitable access to facilities and programs or provide insight to better prepare different groups of students for state tests.

As the county school system solicits feedback from the community to mold its fiscal 2020 operating budget, residents are calling for data to be distributed in a format conducive to analysis.

They point to Schools at a Glance documents — updated each school year and used by community members to get basic information about class sizes, school programs and staff and student demographics – that are now available only in PDF format.

Former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said she spent much of her four-year term advocating for such data to be readily available for board members and the public, calling it a “basic expectation.”

Her requests for data were almost always returned in PDF format and with schools in alphabetical order, making it impossible to sort to look for trends and inconsistencies, she said, and further requests for the same data in a spreadsheet format often went unanswered.

Ortman-Fouse said she believes many staff members don’t understand how or why data should be available in a usable format, think people will be able to manipulate and mass distribute incorrect data or are anxious that the public will uncover areas of imperfection otherwise unnoticed by staff.

“I have found that our community is very invested in the success of our school system. They really want to be partners in meeting the needs of our kids,” Ortman-Fouse said. “When I shared these responses with others, they sometimes caught stuff I didn’t, or led me to more refined questions to move the ball more efficiently on an issue. I strongly felt that if our community and school staff had more information, they could be more helpful. I knew we could do more as a team working with our schools, partner organizations and school staff.”

Moving to easier-to-maneuver datasets would align county schools with the Montgomery County government, which maintains Data Montgomery, an open data portal established in 2012 when the County Council passed legislation requiring certain government data be made public on a single website and be updated regularly. The school system was not included in the regulation.

Montgomery County Public Schools has an open data portal that includes information summaries, graphs and charts about various aspects such as budgets and enrollment. However, some information has not been updated since 2017 and a section outlining student performance on state and national tests has not been completed.

Being able to compare data could positively impact schools by uncovering disparities and areas of success and potential improvement, according to Sunil Dasgupta, chairman of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Association’s health and safety committee, who testified at a recent school board public hearing.

“This is not a difficult or an expensive ask,” Dasgupta said. “If you want to engage families and county residents more broadly, few things will go further than making open data a reality.”

Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said the school district is “working to digitize” data and will have more data dashboards available in the summer, but did not elaborate, at the meeting. Data dashboards are a useful tool for community members to access information about Montgomery County schools and provide data in charts, graphs and often have the option to compare two schools.

A school district spokesperson said community members can request available data be provided to them in a different format at any time by contacting the school system.

Advocates asking for differently formatted data sets argue the information should be readily available to everyone.

Tracie Potts, Paint Branch cluster coordinator who advocates on behalf of school communities in the Burtonsville area, also testified at a recent public hearing and added that accessible data about enrollment, staffing, transportation, building maintenance and school climate is essential to reducing the achievement gap in academic performance between white and minority students that has been a focus of the school board for years.

“This is the only way to ensure evidence-based decisions on your part, and evidence-based advocacy on ours,” Potts said. “Let’s make it happen this year.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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