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.

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

  1. Jason Williams says:

    I clicked on all of your links and found nothing noted in this post to substantiate the title or the overall arc of the post. This is the analytical equivalent of me posting “Why does Derek Monson hate puppies?” and linking to articles on hating puppies being a trait of serial killers as my foundation for asking such a loaded question.

    • Derek H Monson says:

      Jason,

      How did you know that I hate puppies? ;)

      Seriously though, help me understand how an opponent of HB477 from 2011 and an advocate for transparent government can disagree with the idea of making public school performance information accessible to the general public?

      Derek Monson

  2. jbt says:

    Derek To what purpose would giving information about a specific class to an individual who does not have a student in that classroom or school serve?

    • Derek Monson says:

      jbt,

      I would refer you back to the blog post. Specifically, the paragraph that starts “beyond all of these policy considerations…”

      Derek Monson

      • Mr. Monson,

        Researchers and innovators already have access to testing data. School community councils (which include many parents) also have access to this information. Publishing individual class information would serve no purpose.

        • Derek H Monson says:

          James,

          Researchers and innovators have access to testing data, unless USOE doesn’t want to release it to them…then they’ll throw up bureaucratic roadblocks and bump you from person to person until you either give up, or getting the data loses its relevance simply due to time lapse. How do I know this? First hand experience.

          Like any bureaucratic agency, USOE cares about how it and the system it oversees is perceived. And if they think your use of the data won’t caste them (or the public education system) in a positive light, they will take advantage of the system to try to prevent you from getting the data, because the system gives them power to do so. Again, I’m only saying this because I’ve experienced it for myself. Researchers and innovators are not made equal in the mind of Utah’s education overseers.

          Derek Monson

  3. A_frightened_American says:

    As a former elementary school teacher, I do agree with disclosure of schoolwide stats. But taking it to individual classrooms is too much. There are too many variables that cannot be controlled by a teacher in their classroom.

    Chief among those are the effectiveness of parenting by parents of students. A teacher has no way of controlling effort on the part of students. If parents fail to support and see that homework is completed, or provide a home environment that values — instead of denigrating — education there is no way a teacher, no matter how good or bad, may overcome that kind of influence. Education, by its very nature, must be at least a two-way partnership between the teacher and students. In elementary, middle and even high school, it must be a three-way partnership that includes parents.

    Disclosure of statistics at a classroom level would be valid only if the teacher were taking the students home every night to be able to control the climate at home. It would work only if the teacher could dictate bedtimes. Determine how much TV is watched or video games are played in the home.

    How about setting up an evaluation of parents by teachers? If classroom statistics are to be published, how about including the names and grades of individual students and their parents?

    I can tell you from experience that even good teachers may sometimes be dealt students who are impossible to teach. I’ve seen excellent teachers go from being highly successful one year to “failure” the next. But the failure was not the doing of the teacher.

    Other teachers know full well who the poor teachers are. It would be much more realistic to find a way to force lackadaisical administrators to do their jobs and get rid of the poor teachers. I often advocated a system which would eliminate the principal and replace him or her with a committee of classroom teachers to handle educational administration in a school. Instead of a principal supervising all aspects of school operations, turn the school secretary (who does most of the real work in the office anyway) into a business manager who is paid what she is really worth.

    • Derek H Monson says:

      A_frightened_American,

      So, according to you, Utah shouldn’t shouldn’t be publicly release public school classroom information because some parents don’t raise their children very well? I don’t see the connection between parenting responsibilities and the need for government to be transparent with taxpayers in regards to things those taxpayers are paying for.

      Your argument sounds more like an argument against using test scores as the primary basis for teacher pay or tenure decisions. If that’s the case, then we actually agree with you, and have advocated that position repeatedly over the years (i.e. advocated for a comprehensive system of performance reviews to pay teachers and determine tenure, including things like test scores, fellow-teacher evaluations, principal evaluations, evaluations from involved parents, etc.).

      But again, none of this has to do with transparency. Transparency is just a basic aspect of good government in a representative democracy such as ours.

      Derek Monson

  4. Craig Coleman says:

    Interesting simplification of a complex issue. The question is: Should classroom level data on criterion referenced tests or any other tests be made available to the public? Like any other person or entity in Utah, the State Board of Education must comply with state law. Utah Code directs that the State Board “. . . shall adopt rules for the conduct and administration of U-PASS to include the following: . . . compiling of criterion-referenced, online computer adaptive, and online writing test scores and test score averages at the classroom level . . .” (53A-1-603(4)(d)). That sounds simple enough except that SB 64, passed in the last legislative session, directed that “the State Board of Education shall make rules to ensure the privacy and protection of individual evaluation data.” (This includes administrators, teachers and other school employees.). Because the same statute directs that student growth and achievement is to be used to evaluate teachers, the publication of average test scores from individual classrooms would violate the provisions of the new statute to protect the privacy of individual evaluation data. Is anyone surprised that conflicts might be found in state code? How then does the State Board write a rule that satisfies the spirit and intent of both provisions of the law? Much effort has already been expended to reconcile the conflict and write a rule that satisfies those who wish to make the data accessible and those who wish to protect the privacy of individual teachers. Perhaps the Sutherland Institute has some concrete suggestions on how that can be accomplished. Such input would be much more welcome than the cynical approach taken in this article. For now, the State Board has chosen to not amend their rules until state law can be clarified in the next legislative session.

    Craig Coleman
    Utah State Board of Education

    • Paul Mero says:

      I’m a bit incredulous about your comment…though thank you, sincerely, for commenting and for your insight. The conflict is hardly a serious issue to surmount if your goal is to open the data vault to professional analyses with the objective of increasing the quality of education in Utah. It’s not difficult. And, if your comment is a serious invitation for Sutherland to craft appropriate and balanced language, we’re happy to help.

    • Derek H Monson says:

      Craig,

      To answer your question, one way to release classroom
      level information without violating the law against releasing individual
      evaluation data is to simply not attach a teacher’s name to the
      publicly available version of their classroom’s average scores, instead
      using some kind of id number for each teacher that doesn’t change from
      one year to the next – much like we track many pieces of information on many people over time. The state has taken this exact approach in
      publishing financial information on transparent.utah.gov when an
      individual’s identity must by law be protected (e.g. Medicaid payments
      to individual Medicaid recipients).

      But the more important point
      which you didn’t touch, and the real point of my blog post, is that the
      focus of this policy discussion (and most other education policy
      discussions) should be what is in the best interest of children, rather
      than things like the privacy of public school teachers. Of course you
      have to follow the law, but nothing in the law says that the school
      board should or must put the interest of adults (teacher privacy) above
      the best interests of children (giving education entrepreneurs and
      researchers easy access to tools to help improve education practice in
      Utah, to the benefit of every child in the state’s public schools).

      The
      real point is that instead of trying to take a real stand for the best
      interests of children by publicly releasing information that could help
      improve their education, the school board instead wanted to follow an
      approach that compromised the interests of children to the interests of
      adults in the system, before they backed away from doing anything due to
      legal confusion. This has nothing to do with what the law says or
      doesn’t say in this case. It has everything to do with how many (though not all) decision
      makers approach public education in the state: talking about the best
      interests of children while acting in the interest of adults at the
      expense of children.

      Derek Monson

  5. Curious – does the Sutherland Institute, in the interest of being logically consistent, also support public disclosure of classroom level data in private schools attended by students whose tuition is subsidized by vouchers paid for by taxpayers? (Those people otherwise known as “those who pay the bills that make the policy possible.”)

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