ED Surprises SEAs with New Data Release

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Twenty states now have their school-by-school data featured on a new website released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). In each case, the data are also available on the state’s report cards. So why the duplication?

Remember that ESSA required that states publish for the first time the expenditures for each school in the state. Most state agencies met the June, 2020 reporting deadline (for direct links to each state’s data see Edunomics Lab’s School Spending Data Hub). But, in many states, the data are hard to find, hard to interpret, and hard to use if the goal is equity or leveraging resources for student outcomes.

The ED website undoubtedly tackles the first goal: that of making the data easier to find. Especially for parents who might want to quickly see how much is spent on the students in their school, the new site offers a one-stop-shop. While the site isn’t pretty, the filter function allows users to get a list of how much is spent on every school in a district (something that only 12 states offer on their own state report card websites). For those intrepid analysts who want a data file, the ED site also permits users to download the data for more exploration. For these reasons, the site is another positive step forward in daylighting school-by-school spending data.

Here’s what the new site doesn’t do: the user can’t see the data in the context of student demographics or school outcomes. Toward that end, it doesn’t organize the information in a way that enables district and school leaders to make meaningful comparisons that can inform future decisions, including, say, budget cuts.

Some states’ data visualizations already enable these more useful displays. For instance, Illinois and Oklahoma enable the user to array spending and outcomes and even filter by comparable schools. But most don’t, and that means there is still work to do toward ensuring the spending data can be used to inform relevant decisions. Where states have left off, some non-governmental groups have jumped in, including MBAE in Massachusetts and BestNC in North Carolina, with interactive data visualizations that enable more meaningful use of the information.

On the research front, a more thorough data archive is under construction (via a partnership of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab and Massive Data Institute). This new site will allow researchers to marry different kinds of datasets and even enable cross-state comparisons – another feature not possible now as the expenditure definitions vary from state to state.

For those caught by surprise that the ED released this new site, the moral of the story is this:  Where data have value but the original site isn’t useful, different groups can and will grab those data and create displays that users need.