Educators Say Transparency is Key to Getting Public Involved with Improving Schools

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Sharing education data with the public builds trust and gets the community involved with improving schools, said educators who were recognized Wednesday for using data to create change.

Five years ago, the Henrico County School District in Virginia discovered that students with disabilities had higher suspension rates and lower graduation rates than other students.

District data showed that those students represented 13 percent of the school population but comprised 24 percent of students serving out-of-school suspensions, said Superintendent Dr. Patrick Kinlaw.

The district knew improving those numbers would not be possible without making all the information available. It went public with the data despite initial concern from its public relations department, Kinlaw said.

“The greater good prevailed, because we let people know that our interest was in making things better for kids with disabilities,” he said.

The district implemented a plan that relied on data and parental engagement to focus on helping students with disabilities. Since the initiative began, discipline of those students has decreased by 32 percent and graduation rates have increased by 12 percent, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a national nonprofit focused on data in education.

[Related: Data-Driven Decisions: A Myth or Reality for Out-of-School Time?]

“That can’t be done alone,” Kinlaw said of the improvement.

Data Quality Campaign recognized the Henrico school district and three other finalists Wednesday for the 2015 Flashlight Award, given to school districts that use data effectively and transparently.

This year’s top award went to the Goochland County Public School District in Virginia, which collaborated with students, parents and the community to create a data-driven approach to measuring student progress.

In addition to sharing student achievement data with the public, the district made its financial data available as well, Superintendent Dr. James Lane said during a teleconference with award finalists.

Sharing that data “led to a greater trust in our community in the way we were spending dollars,” he said. “Folks could really trust us.”

The other two finalists were districts in Tacoma, Wash.; and Madison, Wis.

In addition to building trust, sharing data with the public helps communities become more data-literate, said Tacoma Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Joshua Garcia.

Garcia’s district created a way for community members and school leaders to explore district data in hopes of improving its graduation rate of 55 percent.

In doing so, people began to understand the limitations of data and became empowered to make decisions, he said.

The collaboration led to the creation of a new data-based system to measure and improve student success. Graduation rates in Tacoma Public Schools have increased 23 percent since 2010, according to a release from the Data Quality Campaign.

Chris Kingsley, associate director for local policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, said transparency is an effective strategy for helping the public understand the decisions districts are making.

It’s “a very successful strategy for districts and states to pursue,” he said.

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