Here are some key recent findings about the youth of New Orleans during the last year: Their numbers are up five percent from 2014 to 2015 — but the number of black children living in the city during the same period dropped.
More are graduating from high school, but the average price of college is higher for low-income students. While the city’s youth poverty rate dropped six percentage points to 37 percent from 2014 to 2015, it still surpasses the state and national rates of 28 percent and 20 percent respectively.
These findings come from the Data Center’s newly released New Orleans Youth Index 2016, of which I am the lead author. The report provides a statistical snapshot of New Orleans children and youth. Borne out of the efforts of youth-centered service providers, the Index publishes baseline tools using data that help advocates develop strategies for improving academic, social, and behavioral outcomes of children and youth up to age 24.
But there’s a problem: Basic data that might inform ways of solving pressing education problems weren’t included in the final document because the state did not make the data available.
And when government agencies don’t make data widely accessible – as in the case of Louisiana – research organizations, educators and parents don’t have information they need to help and inform the public.
“We spent months trying to get basic aggregated demographic data from the Louisiana Department of Education and we were met with long delays or unjustifiable denials,” said Allison Plyer, executive director of the Data Center.
John White, superintendent of the Louisiana Department of Education, contends that “the Obama administration directed Louisiana to remove from its public reports all numbers that could be used to identify an individual child.”
He added that that at the same time, “the Louisiana legislature made it a crime to disclose any information that could be used to identify an individual child.”
Plyer, however, found it difficult to complete her research. She notes that while data from the index show that public school enrollment rose six percent, the Data Center still could not determine why.
New Orleans has one of the highest proportions (if not the highest) of school-aged children attending private schools, including parents of modest means. So did the growth mean more are going public?
Plyer couldn’t answer. “We could not say who is enrolling in public schools because those data were not available,” she said.
They were not available because Louisiana’s state education department removed datasets that it used to make available on its website.
To be clear, two problems rendered the data inaccessible: The department’s restricted release of school-level information, along with a narrower release of anonymous student-level data that protects student identity.
Curating and/or curtailing both kinds of data significantly reduced transparency as well as the ability of the public, including research organizations, to hold the state education department accountable.
Through its exclusive agreements with research organizations and its failure to make basic information public, the state’s education department unnecessarily kept the very public it’s designed to serve at bay.
Last year, the organization Research on Reforms (who are often critical of LDOE) won on appeal a case in which the state education department denied them use of decoded student data records. The department was, however, providing these records to the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, known as CREDO.
Prior to a data agreement between the state and CREDO, the education department disseminated decoded data on Louisiana students to an array of organizations that sought it. The state also readily supplied information about students upon request, without revealing their identities. The state even provided critical information on its website for researchers, parents and schools to analyze for themselves.
In 2014, however, states and districts across the country began drafting legislation around ways personal data are collected, used and disseminated, which made it harder for the general public and researchers to analyze information.
States increased the number of restrictions beyond the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act better known as FERPA. In June of 2014, Louisiana passed Act 837, which “provides for limitations and prohibitions on the collection and sharing of student information.”
White acknowledged that a contradiction exists between those directives and state public records laws that require the disclosure of statistics related to individual children.
However, some believe the state’s actions to remove decoded data may not fall into the purview of these policies.
“FERPA only applies if you’re literally going to give away a secret about a student with a numeral – something that isn’t public knowledge – like a test score,” said Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center.
LoMonte believes many states have interpreted FERPA as an excuse to withhold any small numerical data set. “The states see FERPA as a door that only swings one way.”
In contrast to Louisiana, Massachusetts provides a portal to all disciplinary data of its students. So does that mean Massachusetts is in violation of federal law?
One has to give a side-eye to a state agency that is widely cited for successfully reforming schools, while at the same time is being sued for keeping information about that success private. And making data exclusive to particular outfits prioritizes the research biases of the partner.
In response, White noted that state and federal laws “allow access to children’s personally identifiable information for researchers who are bound by agreements that include strict privacy requirements.”
White added that the Louisiana Department of Education establishes such agreements with scholars affiliated with research institutions, as intended in student privacy laws.”
Yet the optics of not offering a data agreement to the nonprofit group Research on Reforms – which has been critical of the department — seems problematic to me. One is left with a belief that the state gets to decide who is credible enough to analyze data.
By meting data out to preferred groups, the pace at which information is released is influenced by the organizations that the state ostensibly has a relationship with – not the public they were created to serve.
The state, uncharacteristically, sued two parties who requested information to get clarification on the laws.
If going to court to test data privacy laws isn’t evidence of the state’s struggles, the testimonies of others should offer an idea.
“We don’t have basic data that will tell us how specifically schools are serving students with special needs, suspension and expulsion rates and potential school push out as well as information around diversity and quality,” said Nahliah Webber, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network.
Webber is particularly concerned about the way discipline outcomes are self-reported by the schools.
Even researchers that have received restricted data are concerned. Douglas N. Harris, professor of economics at Tulane University, heads the Education Research Alliance on campus and has published numerous reports using data made exclusive to them (and CREDO).
Harris has also signed an agreement with the state to manage public information.
In a Brookings report released last week, Harris is among several scholars who argue that providing information is one of the most fundamental roles for government — in education and many other areas.
“Unfortunately, in Louisiana, getting access to data has been a real challenge,” Harris said.
The Brookings report specifically addresses the federal government’s obligation to manage data, but the same is true for states that are charged with collecting thousands of data points.
Democratizing data – making data open for different analyses – legitimizes the data.
Limiting access to public information to everyone except exclusive partners while denying it to others calls into question both the data and department reports.
Even worse, parents, students and community members don’t have a basis to make good decisions if they can’t analyze information for themselves.
Information is a requisite for choice, accountability and quality. These values serve as pillars for many of the reforms that have transpired in Louisiana during the last eleven years.
“The court instructed the Department to disclose all statistics related to Louisiana students, and the Department has since provided this information,” said White.
While I was writing this column, the department uploaded enrollment data on its website. The LADOE should make other data that was suppressed available as well.
The astronomer Carl Sagan once said: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
States must welcome the scrutiny of researchers, parents and the larger public if we’re to distill fact from fiction or — more importantly — inform the public of the conditions that our children are living in.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.