Friday, October 18, 2013

Class dismissed

So there is a big fuss here in Illinois about a report the state commissioned from the University of Chicago at a cost of $600,000. The fuss is not about the results of the survey, but the fact that the Department of Education has simply decided not to release them.

A survey was conducted of more than one million parents, teachers and students. Most teachers completed them. The goal was to record metrics that are indicators for which schools are working, and which are not. For example, everyone is asked how well their schools and leaders perform. The researchers at the University of Chicago have proof that the metrics they are using an indicate which schools are doing well and which are at risk of failure.

Two reports were produced by the University, one benchmarked the results against data from Chicago Public Schools, the other against state data. Neither have been released. It has been reported by the Chicago Tribune that because some of the results were downright awful the State Department of Education (DOE) decided not to release them at all.  The Chicago Tribune has also written eloquently about why the reports must be released in: "You can't be trusted".

Instead, I understand the DOE is going to release the raw data: the survey questions and answers. This is wiithout the benefit of any analysis or interpretation. Removing the context for the data will thus render it impossible for one school to be judged against any other—the purpose of the original survey. This means that it is no longer possible to uncover in the data any sense of whether one school is doing any better or worse than any other which is important public information.

I wrote to the DOE on October 9th, asking it to release the 5essentials survey under FOIA rules. They declined yesterday stating they were preliminary reports and are being: withheld pursuant to 5 ILCS 140/7 (1) (f) as “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.”.

The point I have made to the Attorney General in my request for a review of this decision is that one cannot on the one hand argue that completed analyses produced by leading education researchers at one of the nation’s top universities are “preliminary”, while at the same time argue that a disaggregated list of their raw data is a “final” report. Something that is “preliminary” is an action or event that precedes something full or more important.

It is fairly clear that what is happening here that the information content of the original report is being degraded because DOE are uncomfortable with the findings of The 5 Essentials Survey. To claim that disaggregated data from the research is somehow a “final” report is a grave attempt to flout the intent and meaning of FOIA law. Open and honest government remains the cornerstone of American democracy through the free exchange of information. In a letter to the Chicago Tribune, Mimi Rodman, executive director of Stand for Children, says the state is holding important data they will not share with students and parents.

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