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Transparency Watch: Will We See Ed. Dept.'s Waiver Data Analysis?

One of the more intriguing nuggets in the newly released waiver-renewal guidance is that the U.S. Department of Education is conducting data analyses to determine if states' accountability systems are doing a good job intervening in and rewarding the right schools.

The guidance—which spells out exactly what states have to do to renew their No Child Left Behind Act waivers—says the results will be shared with states starting in October 2013. On last week's press call, I asked if that information would also be shared with the public.

The answer was rather noncommittal.

Later, Education Department spokesman Cameron French told me: "We will look to make the data public, but have not finalized a timeline."

Federal officials will use these data analyses to zero in on how state accountability systems treat subgroups and low-performing schools. Do the accountability systems correctly identify the worst schools? Are otherwise high-performing schools with struggling subgroups also flagged? If problems are found, then federal officials will demand changes in accountability systems; waivers won't be renewed if changes aren't made.

Certainly, the states could and should choose to make their analyses public immediately, as it would either affirm the legitimacy of their accountability systems or cause them to make improvements.

But the department should also do more than just "look" to make the data public, especially since it has pledged to make the waiver process as open and transparent as possible. By its own doing, the department has created a hodgepodge of school grading systems that give states wide latitude to determine which schools are failing and which are not. These new systems are complicated, unique to each state, and, in at least one case, easily malleable with a tweak here or a tweak there. It is imperative that good data be accessible so that advocates, parents, and policymakers can digest what's working and what's not.

The department has a history of talking a good game on transparency and not delivering to its fullest potential. One example: School Improvement Grant data. Everyone from President Barack Obama on down has touted school turnaround victories as part of SIG, but the department has done a questionable job showing the data behind those claims. In other cases, the department has released information—such as the names of the outside judges who peer-reviewed state waiver applications—only after prodding.

If the department is going to base its decision on whether to grant a waiver renewal at least in part on the results from these analyses, then it should for certain make this data public. And as soon as it's delivered to states.

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