Our Take / Published Nov 22, 2019

When It Comes to School Data, Parents Need Clarity, Not Spin

How much do parents really know about what’s happening in their child’s school and district? Do most parents know, say, how to assess the quality of a school’s curriculum, or how to gauge if their school’s approach to teaching reading is effective, or how well the school is serving different groups of students?

We think the answer is no—and it isn’t parents’ fault.

Last month, the Cowen Institute published their summary of findings from a poll of New Orleans parents about public education. Among many revelations, one statement stood out:

“The findings from this year’s poll suggest that many parents and guardians either lack access to technical knowledge about the school system or are unaware of the added value of that information.”

To support this finding, Cowen noted that less than 40 percent of respondents know the school letter grade of their child’s school. The researchers concluded that parents aren’t all that interested in gaining more knowledge about their children’s schools. That’s a common narrative; if parents did want more information, they’d obviously seek it out. But we think the opposite is true: All too often, parents want to learn more, but the information on offer is not just unclear but downright misleading.

Take the new school grades Louisiana released last week. Across the country, public schools are awarded grades or ratings, based on their state’s evaluation tool. In theory, these grades should provide a snapshot for families—how a school is doing overall, and then how it’s doing across certain specific measures, based on things like test scores, course offerings, and graduation rates. By keeping an eye on those grades from year to year, parents should be able to tell if their child’s school is maintaining a consistent level of performance, getting better, or getting worse.

Yet when the new grades were released in Louisiana, our Navigators noticed a surprising trend: Rather than offering parents clear and objective information, jazzed up headlines buried the truth about how our schools performed, covering them with rosy perspectives and language that could easily be misconstrued.

For instance, parents were told that “district performance” improved overall. But on closer inspection, that improvement was a one-point increase, meaning that New Orleans maintained its C letter grade from the state. For parents interpreting that data point, it might be helpful to know on average how other parishes improved: Is an improvement of one point a real accomplishment, or does it pale in comparison to neighboring parishes? (It turns out that a one-point improvement is not notably better or worse than others.) But without context, the average parent has nothing to go on other than the positive spin.

The announcement also highlighted the fact that a majority of schools in New Orleans received A and B letter grades for the “progress index.” This is a measure of how schools are helping students improve—an important data point, to be sure—but those As and Bs can be easily confused with schools’ overall letter grades. It’s great to acknowledge student growth (and in fact we encouraged the state to do so), but the story of a school’s overall performance can’t be told by growth alone. Many schools with overall grades of D or F are now printing banners and sending letters home to parents to trumpet their progress index score of B, but omitting the bigger picture.

Finally, we noticed celebrations about New Orleans’ “graduation rate index” steadily rising. This is great news for parents, right? Every family has dreams of their child walking across the stage and earning a diploma, of course. But in some schools, graduation rates rose even as ACT scores dropped. Is that cause for celebration? And unlike measures like ACT and end-of-course exam scores, a school’s graduation rate is based on factors the school itself can control. Sometimes that can open the door for questionable behavior, as when a few schools made the news earlier this year for falsifying student grades in order to have them meet graduation requirements. Cheats like this only cheat our families, and families need more than just this slice of information.

To be sure, this isn’t just a New Orleans issue. It isn’t just a Louisiana issue. Across the country, families are offered incomplete or convoluted information about their kids’ schools, and it isn’t just leaving parents in the dark. Without adequate and accurate information, parents can’t make well-informed choices. Tasks like finding the right school for an emerging middle schooler or evaluating one school’s curriculum over another are incredibly daunting for families. These processes expose the complexities of our system and the real need for clarity, simplicity, and transparency in data reporting to families. When we don’t give families clear and honest information, we rob parents of their true power to authentically engage.

The bottom line is, better marketing doesn’t make better schools. Collective effort in deciphering how and where schools fall short, applying research-backed solutions, and adopting clear accountability measures do. Here’s a headline we would’ve loved to see last week—but one that was notably missing from the roundup: “We’ve Got Work to Do: Only 8 out of 50 K-8 schools in New Orleans are doing better than Louisiana’s state performance score.” What New Orleans really needs is honesty about how our schools are doing, not for the sake of holding one party to blame over another, but for the sake of working together to get better. District leaders, teachers, principals, families, and students can’t work toward a common vision of better schools if they’re all hearing different stories and getting different information about what’s going on.

And what if such honesty sounds the alarm? What’s the worst that could happen? We might see families asking more questions, demanding more clarity, and pushing for change. That’s what we want. It’s the only way we improve.