Almost every school collects and stores information on how students perform.
Test scores. Attendance. Demographics. And on and on. Now, more than ever, digital programs make it easy to gather, slice and dice these numbers. This can be difficult to do by hand, but computers make the task of collecting the data easier and faster.
The next task is considerably harder, but it is vital to efforts to use technology in tandem with in-person instruction. Educators, students, policy makers and the public must be able to understand and use the data. Many schools struggle with this, according to a report late last year from the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for more effective use of educational data. The organization’s review of all 50 states found complicated data files being published without any context or attempt at making sense of it all.
Here’s one possible solution: The Atlanta Public Schools’ data visualization blog. This public K-12 school district makes the data it gathers accessible to the public – and not by just dumping out raw numbers that are virtually meaningless to anyone except data scientists. The blog, which goes by the utilitarian name APS Data Blog, publishes regular plain-language updates that allow readers to dive deeper into district data.
“Some of the data we find the most interesting is a little too complex to put out in a simple format,” said John Keltz, director of the district’s Office of Research and Evaluation, which runs the blog, along with its main work of helping teachers and administrators make use of the data.
It is not unusual for a school district to publish data publicly. What makes the project in Atlanta different is their attempt to make the information understandable to the general public, people who are not likely to download and parse gigantic datasets in their spare time. They use data visualization tools to distill complex ideas into a more palatable format. They make a point to speak in a way that can be readily understood by people outside of the education establishment, by explaining obtuse acronyms, for example.
And they have examples of parents who are using the blog posts, which include interactive data visualizations. One parent used information from the blog to help inform a discussion she was having in a private Facebook group of a few thousand local parents.
“It is very cool to see how they get into the shoes of the end user,” said Michael LaMont, executive director of the data and information group at Atlanta Public Schools. “They are always very thoughtful about how someone will use this to improve our schools.”
Here’s one key its success: The blog is not shackled by the traditional levels of “sign-off” that the district uses when publishing official statements. The data team publishes its work independently, allowing the blog to nimbly showcase answers to questions, or interesting information that the office of research and data unearths.