Blog: The Educated Reporter

Meeting Parents’ School-Data Needs

It's essential for parents to be competent at managing their own children's educational data, and for school districts to be transparent about what information is stored and shared, experts say. (Flickr/Knight Foundation)

Parents need more than a report card to know how their children are doing in school. And as they evaluate their local educational options, many parents struggle to find key information, whether it’s course offerings, school-safety statistics, or the quality of teachers.

“So often we find that parents don’t have the information they need or it’s really not in a format that’s most useful to them,” said Dakarai Aarons, the director of strategic communications for the Data Quality Campaign, which advocates for effective education data to improve schools and student achievement.

Aarons was joined this month by Kristina Saccone of the nonprofit GreatSchools for a panel at the Education Writers Association National Seminar in Boston. The two speakers shared research about what parents are looking for in a school and how reporters can connect parents to the information they want and need.

Parents want information about coursework and course access, elective and extracurricular activities, according to Aarons and Saccone. They also want details about how various student populations perform on exams and how teachers stack up. School transportation and whether schools are located near public transportation are high on parents’ lists. In addition, they’re curious about childcare options at the school as well as discipline and school safety.

GreatSchools, which publishes a popular school-information website, culls this information, in part, from state and federal education departments as well as community submissions. It’s included in a searchable online database that contains community reviews. DQC works with state and federal agencies to produce useful data and distribute it in a reader-friendly format. The organization also compiles surveys to determine how parents and educators use data and the types of information they want.

Saccone and Aarons, both former journalists, empathized with reporters who say they have a hard time accessing useful data from school districts.

“As hard as it is for reporters, it’s even harder for the persons who actually have to use it to make decision for kids,” Aarons said. “So often we find that parents don’t have the information they need, or it’s really not in a format that’s most useful to them.”

For example, parents often want to know whether their child needs extra academic help or is ready for more advanced coursework and on track to graduate, Aarons said.

“Most report cards that parents get don’t actually answer these questions,” he said.

In some ways, journalists and school board members may be more informed than parents. Reporters can file public records requests with local, state and federal agencies for data for some school information, such as test results, course offerings, and student enrollment, Aarons and Saccone said.

Those who have access to the information parents want should try to make it more public, the two speakers said. School board members receive data reports from the district that in many cases are supposed to be made public under local laws. Journalists can ask for those reports and hold officials accountable if they don’t provide them or act on their findings.

Likewise, reporters can use that information to explain to the public what the data says, what it means, and why it matters, Saccone said.

“Go deep and go beyond the data,” Saccone advised journalists. Reporters can also use graphics and social media to explain and share data sets, she said.

Aarons agreed, saying reporters play a key role in the school-data revolution by translating large data sets into useful articles that parents can understand.

“Part of it is some of the work you do every day in pushing districts and states to provide information and put it into context,” Aarons said.

Along with education data, parents are curious about what other parents and neighbors think about a school, Saccone said.

“Parents want accountability and their neighbor’s perspective,” she said.

GreatSchools allows community reviews so people can share their experiences and perspectives. Those reviews, along with other data, arm parents with information they need to identify schools that are a good fit for their children..

Saccone said GreatSchools will soon roll out other ratings options, such as course accessibility, college-and-career readiness and school climate.

Parents concerned about a school’s education statistics can use that information to find a better school or to advocate for improvement, Saccone said.

“Parents should find out if they have a choice,” she said. “More and more, we’re trying to get parents to use this information as tools to take action.”