Data-Driven Decisions

EdTech’s role in helping parents to navigate school choice.

GUEST COLUMN | by Nasha Fitter

CREDIT SchoolieInformation – it’s the one thing, sometimes the only thing, that nearly everyone agrees on when it comes to school choice and finding the best fit for your child.

Parents, social science experts, even the growing number of educational consultants hired to help families navigate the school choice process agree that more is better. But information means different things to people, and information is just data if it doesn’t give context, improve decisions or create a sense of competency. That’s especially true if it doesn’t lead parents to act because it’s not meaningful.

The data-driven approach fills a real void – one that’s often the result of confusing or biased information from sources that parents suspect are less trustworthy or more agenda-driven.

One study, published in December, asked parents (and guardians) in eight “high-choice” American cities if they felt they had the information they needed to choose the best school fit for their children. None of those cities had more than 30 percent of respondents say yes – and that was after adjusting for some of the commonly accepted research indicators that include parent educational attainment, race and age.

“Parents in high-choice cities are trying hard to be smart choosers but sorting through the options can be overwhelming,” wrote the authors of the study, “How Parents Experience Public School Choice.”

That’s why a team of education professionals and data scientists have launched an online platform to offer quality data to parents and students navigating school choice processes. The free system uses a sophisticated, 19-point assessment process based on data analytics that helps to level the field for all parents, while providing information that goes beyond test scores. The beta product is currently available for schools in eight districts in California, including Bay Area districts like San Francisco, Fremont and Oakland.

All that data is not without its controversies. New York Times writer Motoko Rich, in a May 12 piece on schools and education data, touched on several perspectives that the increased use of metrics in school classrooms creates among educators, parents and even first-graders with their “data binders.” They include questions of privacy protection, competition, the cultural shift for teachers, and focus on testing.

“Critics worry that an increasing focus on metrics could lead schools to play down intangible factors that enhance learning and inspire students,” writes Rich. “With many measurements based on some kind of test, some critics say the drive to collect more data could exacerbate the testing culture in schools or simply create more busywork.”

Quality edtech assessment tools, though, must be designed to explore and integrate those intangible factors. They move the data beyond test scores, to offer meaning and actionable insight to stakeholders. At Schoolie, the platform is user-friendly and accessible, so that it does for parents what other more holistic assessment products, like Boston-based Panorama Education, now do for school administrators.

The data-driven approach fills a real void – one that’s often the result of confusing or biased information from sources that parents suspect are less trustworthy or more agenda-driven. The research is often as politicized as school choice itself, but even professionals that few think of as champions of charter schools, vouchers and the like agree that information matters. In her talk last fall at the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, sociologist Annette Lareau noted that in her research, even affluent, highly educated parents agonize over the painful process of choosing schools and neighborhoods.

“I’m a scientist, I know how to check things out, and the fact is I really didn’t do it,” said one parent, whose doctoral degree in research wasn’t an asset when making her choices. “Horrible,” said another, who told her she had nightmares and gained 30 pounds, despite an Ivy League education to equip her.

Lareau’s discussion of school choice reiterated the well-documented degree to which all parents relied on informal networks – family, friends, real estate agents and colleagues – to create mental maps of what choices were deemed “good,” and those that weren’t. It explored possible reasons for the barriers people described to her, their nuances and impact. But what few people did was use reliable data tools.

“People don’t have enough information even if they do have information,” said Joseph Viteretti, Chair of the Urban Affairs & Planning Department at Hunter College, during his response to Lareau at CUNY.

Providing those data tools is the edtech mission that the Schoolie team is passionate about. And it helps to solve the one problem that parents, educators and policymakers all agree on: more information.


= How Parents Experience Public School Choice (CRPE study)

= Choosing Neighborhoods, Choosing Schools (Lareau, Viteretti, CUNY discussion)

= Some Schools Embrace Demands for Education Data (New York Times)

= website

= Panorama Education website


Nasha Fitter is founder and CEO of edtech startup A Harvard MBA grad and author, Nasha worked previously as Chief of Staff of Microsoft Education and Director of Microsoft’s Global Schools Program. She lives in Palo Alto, California. 

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