Put children first: Don’t hide classroom-level data from public

Suppose you are king of Utah for a day. Your education adviser asks you whether you think it is a good idea to make information on the performance of each classroom of public school students publicly available.

He explains to you that doing so will allow people to learn more about what makes Utah’s best teachers effective – meaning that more children will benefit from better teaching as these “best practices” are identified and spread.

He further tells you that since taxpayers pay for everything in public schools and need basic information to evaluate whether state and local education policies are effective and beneficial for children, it makes sense to open up the “education data vault” in this way.

Would you think this is a good idea?

If you said “yes,” then the Utah State Board of Education disagrees with you.

Recently, the Utah State Board of Education discussed this very issue – how much information on taxpayer-funded public schools should be accessible to taxpayers. Their desired policy is to share classroom-level data, such as a class’s average test score, with parents (but only those who request it) while withholding such information from the general public.

It is amazing that in this age of technology-driven transparency and openness in government, some taxpayer-funded government bodies still seek to hide information from the public. It is even more astounding that those choosing to do so in this case are elected officials whose duty it is to ensure that the public has access to information which is fundamental to a functional democratic society. It is similarly astonishing that the people whom the school board policy would hide information from are the taxpayers: those who pay the bills that make the policy possible.

The policy of refusing general access to public school information manages to combine tight-fisted protection of the status quo in a digital age; neglect for the higher duties of elected leaders in a democratic society; and contempt for the public whom public policy ought to serve – a trifecta not often achieved.

Beyond all of these policy considerations, perhaps the biggest factor in making such a bad policy unjustifiable is the fact that those hurt the most by it are children. The more that public policy makes public school information available and easily accessible, the better education innovators and researchers can determine the effectiveness of education practices and improve upon the poor ones – with the greatest benefits going to the children who then receive a better public education than they would have otherwise.

On the other hand, a policy of blocking public access to information about Utah’s taxpayer-funded education system protects the power of education bureaucrats – who will grant access to public school information as best serves their interests, which do not always align with those of children – and the jobs of those teachers who aren’t very good, whose poor performance receives less scrutiny than it otherwise would.

Some may argue that this policy of limited informational access is appropriate because it protects the privacy of public school teachers. But this only makes sense if you think that public schools should first serve the interests of the adults working in schools, rather than the children who want a good education by attending them.

If providing a high-quality education to improve the well-being of children is the primary purpose and desired outcome of public education, as it should be, then clearly the state should open up access to the education data vault to the general public. If the purpose of public schools is to serve the interests of the adults that work at the schools – in other words, if all of that “best interest of children” talk is just lip service – then protecting teachers from public scrutiny is the best policy.

A glaring exception to this rule is if a classroom has so few students that announcing its average test score is tantamount to announcing each child’s test score. In those cases, then both child welfare and adult interests point to a policy of blocking public access to classroom information. But again, this is the exception, if we sincerely care about children first.

You may not be king of Utah, but the Legislature and the State Board of Education should be answering to you and all of Utah’s taxpayers. Hopefully, they will show that they really do put the child’s best interest first by opening up the education data vault to everyone.