Blog: The Educated Reporter

Are Reporters’ Jobs About to Get Easier? New Ed Data Tools On The Horizon

Reporters and families are often on the hunt for good data—about schools in the neighborhood, TV’s effects on learning, average debt level after completing college—that are also easy to decipher. But even though we’re in the era of big data, much of the information that’s public is often tucked behind wonky smoke and mirrors, leaving would-be gumshoes lost on the trail.

The White House, however, is trying to make the information government agencies churn out more accessible. Earlier this month, President Obama signed an executive order that calls on all federal departments to release public data in formats that developers and entrepreneurs can easily adopt for consumer services. In the text of the order and an accompanying document, the president stressed the information should be “open and machine readable” for the purposes of fueling “entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans’ lives.”

The tech and data blogosphere hailed the policy change. In a Slate article, popular technology writer and analyst Alexander Howard wrote, “This is perhaps the biggest step forward to date in making government data—that information your tax dollars pay for—accessible for citizens, entrepreneurs, politicians, and others.”

I followed up with Alexander in a brief email interview. He said the move is likely a boon to reporters and the startup-minded alike. “Entrepreneurs are already motivated to make a buck and build businesses. If data is useful and they know about it, they’ll use it. If not, they won’t. Reporters are motivated to tell stories and use data in investigations. If data is useful and they know about it, they’ll use it. If not, they won’t.”

When information is collated from public sources in intelligent ways, reporters notice. In education, several websites have been forerunners at plucking raw government data into comely tables and charts—like GreatSchools and New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project. More recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education unveiled its College Reality Check, which informs users on key cost and completion statistics about post-secondary institutions that can be compared side by side. All three are popular among education scribes and rely on federal data.

Much of the education figures that make their way into stories originate from the suite of data tools provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, the information hive for the U.S. Department of Education. NCES is required to follow through on the President’s executive order and NCES commissioner Jack Buckley says his agency is ready for the changes. In a recent interview with EWA, he noted the education department has been anticipating the executive order for months, overhauling much of the data available to the public.

“Faster is better. If the broader education community can find novel uses for these data, then we are all in favor of getting them into their hands as fast as we can,” Buckley said.

Some troughs of information at NCES have been relatively easy to use for some time. NAEP Data Explorer allows users to plot detailed charts and graphs that represent over 1,000 variables. The information can also be exported into Excel and other spreadsheet software. The Common Core of Data, which provides enrollment and socio-economic data on all U.S. public schools, is another NCES service Buckley said meets the executive order’s criteria.

Less well-known data tools from NCES are either being rebooted or introduced later in the year. Power Stats and Quick Stats take higher education and early learning longitudinal studies and present them in formats that fans of NAEP Data Explorer can appreciate. Buckley said his agency isn’t building an API for the complex sample-design studies like the longitudinal data found on the education department website. That’s because these are much harder to parse and if developers aren’t familiar with education data, they can build products that generate inaccurate information.

“For example: If you took just all the kids in the early childhood [longitudinal] study who were residents of Michigan, and computed some average, that average would be an incorrect statistic because of the weights you would need to consider,” Buckley said.

Some impending updates to how information is presented required changes to Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) rules, the set of federal laws protecting the privacy of students. In the rule-changing’s wake, a new clearinghouse of state-level data that allows users to compare proficiency levels of various subgroups according to NCLB requirements is now available. And in the coming months an inventory of all the public data the education department collects will go live. “There are data files there I didn’t know about,” said Buckley. He expects the project to be complete sometime in the fall.

Even with the executive order, certain tasks that appear simple on the surface require a lot of legwork, Buckley said. In one example within a state, the gender of students in K-12 could be designated as “one” and “two,” while in the higher education tracking system the same students could be labeled M and F. “The systems are not made to talk to one another,” Buckley said, which complicates the already heavy lift of collating state information with common terms.

Our sympathies to the commissioner as he noodles away to make data sets easier to read.  

Photo source: Screenshot of DataLab site operated by NCES.