By John Bailey and Tom Vander Ark
"Let me Google that."
"Google" has become a universal term for finding information online, and was officially recognized as a verb by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. Quick, simple access to useful information online has transformed the way we perform tasks ranging from perusing movie reviews before dropping $10 at the box office to spending thousands of dollars on a new vehicle. Few people plan a vacation without visiting TripAdvisor or a similar site. Many don't choose a restaurant before checking in with Zagat's or Yelp. Well-designed applications and websites have allowed consumers to review easy-to-digest information like never before.
Most parents, however, lack access to the useful information they need to determine how their child's school is performing.
What Does School Information Look Like Today?
Federal law requires that all 50 states publish an annual report card for every public school in the state. But presenting complex student and school performance data in a format that meets federal and state requirements, is accessible across multiple platforms, and is user-friendly is an incredibly daunting task. Many state departments of education may not have the capacity to handle what is essentially a design issue, especially at a time when state resources are limited and the demands on departments are many.
The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) spent the summer researching existing school report cards. ExcelinEd relied heavily on an influential study by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) that asked researchers, parents and experts if school report cards were easy to find and easy to understand.
Inspired by the ECS findings and a desire to mimic the parent experience, ExcelinEd searched online for school report cards for "Lincoln Elementary School" in each state (45 states have a Lincoln Elementary). We began with a basic Internet search and, when that failed, navigated to the report cards through state departments of education websites. We noted how long it took to find each report card, the effectiveness of a Google search, and how easy - or difficult - it was to navigate to and within the report cards.
Our observations echoed the ECS analysis and the experiences of far too many parents who are seeking information about their child's school. In general, report cards can be:
• Difficult to find. A team of researchers working with ECS struggled to locate many state report cards online. ExcelinEd observed that fewer than half the states' report cards were "easy to find" in that they could be located through a quick Web search or via a couple of clicks from a state's department of education homepage.
• Lacking in visual appeal. One parent, who reviewed all 50 state report cards for the ECS analysis, commented that the report card was "extremely boring and [the] data in [the] tables [were] not clearly labeled or explained."
• Hard to understand. Many report cards meet the technical requirement of the law in terms of reporting data, but they fail to make it intuitive or provide context around the numbers. A parent in the ECS analysis observed that one report card provided "not much reference or explanation of the 'B' grade." Similarly, ExcelinEd research revealed that one state awarded its Lincoln Elementary School 17.29 points for an "average growth z score" without further explanation.
• Lacking in key pieces of data. Five indicators of performance are essential for a school report card: achievement, academic growth, achievement gap closure, graduation rates, and postsecondary and career readiness. Unfortunately, ECS found that just 14 states included all five essential indicators in their school report cards.
• Data rich and information poor. On the other hand, some states report so much data that it can be overwhelming for parents. A parent interviewed by ECS likened the experience of digesting one state's report card to "reading a corporate financial report of 20 pages."
As pointed out in a recent blog post by Getting Smart, parents are not the only educational stakeholders who need better school information. Teachers looking for new jobs need information to identify the school that best meets their experience. Policy makers need information to guide school accountability decisions and more effectively engage parents.
Advocates need information to determine whether all students in a district have equal access to high-quality schools. And, the general public needs information to engage in creating a better community.
All stakeholders should be able to evaluate any public school with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a mobile device.
Call to Action
An often overlooked and unappreciated innovation over the last decade is the advancement of design. We see it in the new ways data are visualized. IDEO has pioneered the notion of design thinking as a way of problem solving. Hans Rosling amazed TED viewers with compelling motion graphs that revealed global trends. Products are leveraging design innovation to improve not just functionality, but also the user experience.
To bring this same innovation to school report cards, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), in partnership with Getting Smart, has launched the My School Information Design Challenge (#schoolinfo) - a national competition to rethink and redesign the way in which key data is presented on school report cards so that they can drive decisions, spark discussions and support the efforts of state departments of education. The competition offers prizes totaling up to $35,000 for designers who employ the latest advancements in data visualization to effectively reimagine the appearance, presentation and usability of school information.
School report cards should reflect the very latest in graphic design. The design should be intuitive so the strengths and challenges of a particular school are easy to understand by all audiences - whether you are an education policy expert with a Ph.D., a parent in an underserved community with failing schools looking for better school options, a busy parent managing a child's involvement in school activities, or a first-time parent choosing a kindergarten.
Graphic designers have a unique ability to take data, transform it, and rethink the way in which it can be visualized. And, through this design, make it more valuable and usable. Through the My School Information Design Challenge, we can tap into that talent to improve parents' understanding of their schools and work with states to improve their ability to share valuable school information.
Ready access to easy-to-understand school performance data plays a vital role in improving our education system. If designed well, today's required school report cards could be a critical tool in strengthening accountability, helping parents find the best educational options available for their child, and engaging communities in important discussions about the academic challenges and opportunities facing their schools. It's time to support states in redesigning school report cards by attracting top talent, and providing research and inspiration for their design. Learn more about this exciting opportunity at MySchoolInfoChallenge.com.
John Bailey is Vice President of Policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) and Executive Director of Digital Learning Now. He was the nation's second Director of Educational Technology. He also served as Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, including education, during the Bush administration, and as a top technology and innovation advisor to the Secretary of Commerce.
Tom Vander Ark is author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World and Smart Cities That Work for Everyone: 7 Keys to Education & Employment. He is CEO of Getting Smart, an education advocacy firm and a partner at Learn Capital an education venture fund. Previously he served as President of the X PRIZE Foundation, Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a public school superintendent in Washington State. Tom serves as a director of iNACOL, Charter Board Partners and several others.