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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

The #PublicInterestTech Movement That Could Transform School Quality Measurement

For data to live in the real world – not just in tables or spreadsheets where they can be pored over by researchers and policy wonks – we need them to tell a story that parents and community members can easily understand. Too often, this is easier said than done. But our work with the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) shows that new innovations in technology are enabling data to be more widely accessible – and narrative – than ever before.

Data are common currency in education, with states collecting reams of information each year about students, teachers, schools and districts. But having a lot of data doesn’t mean much if repositories aren’t being used to improve schools and classrooms for all students.

One key to using data well is being able to see, in a single glance, the stories they tell and then using these stories to catalyze deeper inquiry and action. As Salome Asega, a Technology Fellow at the Ford Foundation, put it, “I’m thinking about how technology can be used to tell rich stories with urgency.” Tables and spreadsheets hold a lot of information, but they don’t always lend themselves to storytelling. 

Consequently, data visualization has become an increasingly important tool for researchers looking to communicate findings in easy-to-understand and memorable displays. The Swedish global health researcher Hans Rosling, who died in 2017, made a name for himself (and for data visualization) by animating trends in global health and income inequality over time. In addition, news outlets like the New York Times have dedicated staff whose job it is to create dynamic and interactive tools to explore social science findings, such as Sean Reardon and colleagues’ data on school achievement and parents’ socioeconomic status

The measurement of school quality is, on its face, about telling the story of schools: what they do well, where they are working to improve, how they change over time. And yet, the tools we have to visualize school quality data are – for the most part – still tethered to tables and spreadsheets. More fundamentally, without dynamic tools to present a nuanced and colorful picture of schools, these data will continue to be used as a blunt instrument in accountability systems. The practice of ranking schools against each other, based largely on standardized test scores, not only presents an incomplete two-dimensional picture of schools; it also contributes to widening inequity and deepening segregation. School quality measurement seems like a technical problem, but it demands a just solution. 

The emerging field of #PublicInterestTech, situated at the intersection of technology and social justice, has the potential to transform school quality measurement for schools, school districts, and the public they serve. Public interest tech allows technologists and developers to use their expertise and skills in service of the common good and the creation of a more just world. 

MCIEA, a collaboration of seven districts and their teachers’ unions, is also working to tell rich stories about schools. By building teachers’ capacities to design and score performance assessments and by collecting a broad range of data beyond test scores to measure school quality, MCIEA is committed to using data in the service of authentic assessment and reflective accountability. Among the tools MCIEA is using to develop this alternative accountability system is an online data dashboard where district officials, school leaders, teachers, families, and community members can examine data that together tell a story about the full range of characteristics that make up a school. This includes teachers’ perceptions of the professional community, the extent to which students feel engaged in learning and connected to the school, the availability of technology, the number of curriculum hours reserved for the creative and performing arts, and more. 

Already, MCIEA has an indication that better data can change the narrative about schools and communities. In a pilot test of the data dashboard, 50 families were asked to rate a school they knew well (usually the school where their children attended). They were then asked to rate a randomly assigned unfamiliar school. To do this, half of the families were given state data; half were given a fuller range of MCIEA data. When rating the familiar school, families using each data source rated the schools similarly. When rating the unfamiliar schools, however, those families using the MCIEA dashboard tended to assign the schools higher and more positive scores. Notably, families using MCIEA data rated unfamiliar schools on par with families who knew that school best.

With time – and the help of public-minded technologists and web developers – we believe that the MCIEA data dashboard can become a model prototype for how districts communicate what is happening inside schools, how teachers and school leaders engage in deep inquiry about school improvement, and how parents and community members become active and engaged advocates for public education. 

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