In my day job, I spend a lot of time looking at data and — ideally — trying to get people to use data in their decision-making. At home, my wife and I have also spent the past few months trying to find the right kindergarten for our 4-year-old daughter. Would data help us make a decision this personal?
We’ve visited ten schools in person and looked at countless others on paper. We’re planning to send our daughter to our neighborhood school – Ridge Hill Elementary in Hamden. We like the principal. We like the building — an open plan school that was built in the ‘70s. We like the other families and neighbors who send their kids there and are actively involved in the PTA and after-school activities. It’s close, convenient, and there is a bus stop on the corner of our street. All of these things are hard or impossible to measure, but they played the biggest roles in our decision-making.
Despite all that, I still made a spreadsheet.
What went into our spreadsheet? My wife and I tried to find indicators that would tell us about the school and about things we couldn’t observe from a tour or talking to friends or parents. Had Your School existed, we would have used that.
At every school we visited, we were — truly — impressed by the teachers, by the students, by the facilities. But not all schools are the same — what were we missing? Tours, open houses and conversations with friends tell us some things, but not about what happens when we’re not there.
We found data mostly in the State Department of Education Strategic School Profiles. If I didn’t have a job that already required me to spend an inordinate amount of time on the SDE website, I’m not sure I could have found them. But they are incredibly helpful — in part for the data, but also because they provide a place where school leaders write in their own voice about what they’re doing in the school and their priorities.
We looked at student need — the percent of students on free / reduced price lunch. We don’t view high levels of need as a deterrent, but we wanted to have a sense of the challenges the student body as a whole might face. Ridge Hill’s student population has about 63 percent of students eligible for free / reduced price lunch. If we lived two blocks north, we’d be zoned for a school with less than 20 percent of students receiving support. That kind of disparity is typical for Connecticut, I guess.
Across schools, the data also confirmed that this indicator leaves a lot out — for example, many schools report over 95 percent of students eligible for free / reduced price lunch, even if the actual level of need is lower among the student body, due to a quirk of the reporting requirements.
We looked at 3rd grade reading test scores. We don’t want to give in to a focus on high-stakes testing and define success exclusively in terms of academic achievement. But at the same time, we do want to make sure our daughter learns to read. So test scores went into the mix.
We looked at kindergarten classroom size. We know that classroom size impacts education and we value a school that can give our daughter a more intimate experience. We also know that classroom size can change every year based on enrollment and public awareness about registration, so there is no guarantee.
We looked at teacher turnover. If we like the teachers, can we expect them to be there next year? Do teachers choose to stay in the school? The profiles report the percent of teachers new to the school, which is the best proxy we could find. It would have helped to understand if students and families choose to stay in the school or if teachers send their own kids to the same school, but unfortunately that data is not available.
We looked at disciplinary events. Safety is a basic concern, but we also wanted to make sure our daughter’s school is not one where the administration views discipline as the first response to challenges in the classroom.
That’s it. This is already a complicated process and we wanted the data to help simplify it, not make it more confusing.
At the end of the day, having a spreadsheet and data helped a little. The comparisons allowed us to make some choices about school visits or applications. But the intangibles are mostly what drove our decision.
As parents, we know that we are toward the one percent end of the spectrum. We sent our daughter to a fantastic private pre-K program. We had flexible workplaces and schedules that allowed us to spend time on school tours. We knew how to track down the data from strategic school profiles and other parents for guidance. As Robert Putnam might say, we are “the parents that drive our daughter to dance class” (and we do). Not everyone is in this situation, though, far from it.
During our search, someone we respect told us that the best way to have good public schools is to send good students to public schools. Ridge Hill gets a 3 out of 10 on GreatSchools and a D from ConnCan. These are not good grades. Who accesses this data? What conclusions do they draw from it?
It’s easy for data to reinforce disparities, rather than remove them. How data on schools is presented informs the choices that parents make and where they send their kids. We looked at a lot of schools and a lot of data and made our own choice. Hopefully the data published on schools helps parents get a more complete picture of what those schools can offer.