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Data for the People Build Community Power

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(Editor's note: The announcement that Education Trust-West and a number of civil rights and community organizations were founding a data hub in San Bernardino County, struck me as an important opportunity to increase the capacity for community voice in the California Local Control Funding Formula process.  Here, Ryan Smith, the organization's executive director, expands on the value of getting actionable information to the people.)

By Ryan Smith

Recently, during a policy briefing in the Central Valley, a community leader asked if she could comment by telling a story.  She spoke of a small cadre of mapmakers from up north that would spend time making maps for communities with no input from the people who lived there.  Townspeople would openly complain: the map didn't reflect the ground they knew—they had missed rivers, peaks, and other valuable landmarks in the community.  The mapmakers came back and told them "Our maps are right, it's your ground that's wrong."

Point taken. Today, well-intentioned education policies still feel as if they're being done to and not with communities.  Laws that start off as puddles in Sacramento can come down like waves to school communities, particularly communities of color.

LCFF Provides Unique Opportunity

The time is ripe to invest in bottom-up policymaking.  California's move to the Local Control Funding Formula and the current redesign of our state accountability system provide a unique opportunity to accelerate meaningful engagement of educators, students, parents and community members.   

Thumbnail image for SB Data Hub.jpgFurthermore, the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires robust information be publicly available and disaggregated by subgroups.  ESSA also calls for college enrollment data and any other available data deemed helpful to parents to be included on school report cards.  This information can shine a brighter light on student outcomes and empower families in their education decision-making.

However, ESSA is a vehicle for empowerment—but it doesn't drive itself.  For local control to move past lip service, stakeholders must fully understand complex data, research, budgets, and policy and use this knowledge to make informed decisions.  Without an intentional focus and resources dedicated to data readiness, these efforts to meaningfully engage communities feel more like empty promises.

Bring Data To The People

Building community understanding of data utilization can start to bridge the gap.  When data are effectively understood and used locally, there are long-term benefits for transparency, efficiency, system performance, and student outcomes.  Although we've made progress making education data readily available, we've never done a decent job of helping education stakeholders actively use data to inform decision-making.  Stakeholders are too often forced to make decisions based on anecdotes, because they do not have access to high-quality, accessible information.

It's time to finally bring data to the people.

This means the state must develop data systems that are cultivated with consideration for the community members who need this information.  California can't afford to simply warehouse data in confusing and cumbersome ways.  Even as the use of technology increases, a vast digital divide exists in low-income communities and communities of color.  We have to meet communities where they are through the use of tools designed to develop community members' awareness of how this information connects to their daily experiences. 

The right data matter as well. When it comes to school and district performance, we must resist the urge to artlessly data dump and call it a day.  Transparency is not providing teachers a one hundred page data binder or creating data dashboards that drown parents in fifty indicators of success.  The state has an obligation to provide the right, digestible data including summary measures that don't mask how students achieve.  Let's stay away from the dark ages when California's accountability system painted a pretty picture that covered up distressing disparities in schools and districts failing our most forgotten students.  

Invest in Community-Based Expertise

We must also partner with organizations that have a track record of authentically partnering with community members.  Groups like Californians for Justice, P.I.C.O., the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and Californians Together work directly with students, parents, and community members to comprehend how to use data to hold schools accountable for success.  We've spent $40 million to get County Offices of Education up to speed on supporting LCFF.  Similarly, let's invest in the groups with this type of community-based expertise rather than recreating the wheel.

We have to equip those on the frontline with more tools. Recently Ed Trust-West partnered with a number of advocacy and education organizations in San Bernardino to open a community-based data and research hub that will serve as a catalyst to build knowledge around budgets, data, and policy at the local level.  Our first step is facilitating data equity walks, a program designed to understand the disparities in the data we see in low-income communities and communities of color.

Let's work toward democratizing data.  Measuring and understanding success in education is critical to all stakeholders.  Making sense of education information for the average citizen is big data's last frontier. It's time for policymakers to embrace the challenge and make sure that a system showing data of the people is also for the people.  The mapmakers who visited the Central Valley weren't wrong to make maps—they just started and ended with their own view of the world.  Whether data comes in the form of a map or a pie chart, ignoring the local geography gets us nowhere.

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