TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Dept. of Ed. data illuminates school system inequities

If you want a loaf of bread, you could grind your own wheat flour, milk your own cows, and harvest your own eggs — or, you could visit a bakery and let a pro do it. The same is often true of government data.

If you’re wondering whether your high school is offering an education as good as what’s available across town, you could hit each school with a public-records request, cross your fingers for a timely response and wait — or you could see whether the U.S. Department of Education has already done the legwork for you.

Sometimes, good data-driven reporting comes down to just knowing where to look. The folks at ProPublica, the Pultizer-winning nonprofit investigative reporting brain trust, are some of the best at this.

Over the summer, ProPublica reporters published a package of stories based on data compiled by the Department of Education (“DOE”) Office of Civil Rights, looking at which states and districts do the best job of making Advanced Placement courses widely available.

The DOE enforces the provisions of the Civil Rights Act that guarantee equal access to educational opportunities regardless of race, ethnicity or other protected class. Ensuring equal educational opportunities requires gathering a prodigious amount of data, some of which is posted in the electronic “reading room” of the Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”), and all of which is available on request.

ProPublica drew on two sources of data: The OCR’s nationwide census of educational program offerings by school, and the DOE’s National Center for Education Statistics, a jewel mine of data for background and trends about schools at the state, district and building level. Researchers at ProPublica have organized 2010-11 school-by-school data in a searchable online archive, so getting started is easy. The database enables users to run school-to-school comparisons, and to look for correlations between students’ family income and the opportunities they’re given.

It is impossible to fully measure the quality of the educational experience that a school offers; experienced and well-credentialed teachers are not necessarily the most effective communicators. So journalists should be cautious in concluding that statistics prove schools are “good” or “bad.” But some educational indicators can be quantified — a school that offers few opportunities to take advanced math and science classes should be explaining why.