Photo by Lori Greig on Flickr.

Educating children in DC’s publicly-funded schools can feel like a roller coaster ride for parents who have to sort through myriad educational options. DC can ease this task by making more information freely available and encouraging people to develop more useful tools that help parents make sense of it all.

DC provides a menu of options from a growing diversity of programming among DC Public Schools and DC Public Charter schools. “School choice” has become a buzzword, but for many parents, choosing a school is bewildering.

Parents ask friends, spend hours researching schools, identify a few best fits (which may or many not be in the neighborhood), and attend open houses, tours, and student shadow days (all the while pulling the child out of the classroom and taking time off work).

Then, parents have to apply to lotteries, trying ignore the feeding frenzy in discussion forums, and waiting to learn if they hit the lottery and got their child into any chosen schools. Plus, since lottery dates are not coordinated, parents have to go through this angst multiple times.

Many families do not have the time to invest in this process. Nor do they all have equal access networks or information. What’s more, families’ priorities vary according to needs and values, so we can’t really expect the city to provide school information in ways that meet everyone’s needs.

A few “school locator” applications have taken some initial steps toward helping parents through this process, but they don’t answer many practical questions a family might ask. For example, in my own search for schools, some questions I have asked are:

  • Will there be many families from my neighborhood that I may not know today, but can one day befriend to set up carpools (or bike pools) so my kids can take part in after school activities? (Neighborhood-level data about the school populations would help.)
  • Is the program awesome throughout, or just glossy in year 1? (Data around retention of children at the grade-level would help.)
  • Where do children go when they transition to the next stage? (Data around formal feeder patterns or informal destination schools would help.)
  • What strengths do schools have, aside from test scores, such as particularly good music or arts or sports programs? (Data around enrichment would help, including after school programming.)

To meet the flexibility of needs, we don’t need merely more canned reports. We need raw data — data about the students and families of students attending DC schools. In theory, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) collects all of this data. (I, for example, fill out 8 or more forms for my 2 kids each year).

Even if OSSE had and could release all of this raw data, many families (including my own) would not have the capacity to sift through the information in a way that would enable them to draw meaningful conclusions. To make sense of raw data we would need technology. Fortunately, many coders in DC are willing to volunteer to use their skills for social good. Examples are Code For DC and events like International Open Data Day, where scores of DC programmers and technologists gather for a day to donate their time towards projects for local, national or global causes.

The bad news is that data is difficult to get. Sure, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are an option, but they are also a barrier. Legal processes can be lengthy and difficult.

Mayor Gray has made a commitment to transparency. I asked him to open up data sets leading up to Open Data Day.

State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley Jones and Jeff Noel, OSSE’s Data Management Director, responded. They couldn’t get me all the data I’d requested, but they sent 12 datasets. In the following 24 hours, Open Data Day volunteers were able to create several tools using this data, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.

The DC government has an opportunity to leverage this energy and to benefit from help by the very community it is meant to serve. The key is that this is possible only when raw data is open and available. With officials’ help, DC families can one day soon have tools to help them through the difficult process of navigating school choice.