“You’ll never get student data from charters in Oakland!”
That was the premise of some civic leaders in Oakland late last year when we considered doing just this. Others said it would be super easy. Turns out none of those folks were right, not exactly.
The Oakland Achieves Partnership has published a school progress report for three years now, however most indicators in this report included data only from District-run schools. We now have one quarter of our public school students in charter schools, so this report was missing a large population of students, and this means that public awareness of how well both systems are serving our students was compromised.
For 16 years now, Urban Strategies Council has obtained student-level data in partnership with Oakland Unified School District’s Research, Assessment and Data office. There’s just one central data system we pull data from, the agreement is simple, and our security and data management is clean and easy. When we expanded our purview to include every single charter school in town, things got messy. Instead of just establishing and maintaining one data-sharing relationship, we had to broker dozens. And we found that data systems and capacity vary widely across charter schools in Oakland.
Our final report has an abundance of notes and caveats about the data, almost all related to charters. Many people thought that schools would be resistant to providing these data, but this was rarely the case, aside from some reasonable caution that charter school boards needed to be ok with this, and some initial concern about security and our use of these data. It turned out that the gaps in our published data were mostly due to problems in data systems, very small populations, and data not being published by the state.
Many charter schools, both independent and those in larger charter management organizations, have very limited staffing for managing (and exporting!) their data. These staff are frequently overwhelmed and managing a research data request is often outside their comfort zone. This created situations where the initial data we received was flawed (mostly at the school level and less commonly at record level), requiring back and forth conversation to fix. Likewise, we encountered cases where data systems had major problems — everything from data gone missing to data stored in ways that were sub-optimal. This was not everywhere, just in a few schools and management organizations, but it highlighted the problems with dozens of organizations trying to manage complicated data with sometimes limited staff and technical capacity.
We’re aware that charter schools have agreed to sharing some data with OUSD in recent years- a big shift from the laissez-faire process that required no data sharing when schools were actually chartered- a massive oversight, and we applaud this effort. However we’re still faced with a fragmented school data ecosystem, on in which some schools struggle to manage their data effectively, while others maintain their data well, but in isolation. Centralization of data is not always the answer, but neither is repeating the huge task of assembling these data from 19 separate organizations to give our community a real view of how all of our public schools are doing.
A lack of transparency can come as much from fragmented, inaccessible systems as from lack of will. We think that some form of integrated data system or more coordinated data sharing will benefit not only our research, but broader public awareness, which can support more targeted advocacy and reform, and better informed parents. There still remains the need to make these data public and clear for public use, but fragmentation rarely proves a smart, sustainable path for one city. This report is a significant step forward in public education transparency, and while we plan to repeat this work, we also believe there is much to be gained with integrated data sharing and more aggressive open data and we look forward to bringing our city into this future.