Consider just a few of the questions whose answers might help a community’s leaders and citizens make better decisions about how to improve their schools:
• What has been said and written about school start times in districts with comparable demographics and financial resources, but better student test scores?
• What is the relationship between student test scores and systems for electing school board members in comparable school districts?
• How do superintendent contracts vary in comparable districts?
Parents, teachers, administrators, and taxpayers have legitimate reasons to ask questions like these. But it has been incredibly hard for them to do so. One reason is that much public information remains locked in the file cabinets of America’s more than 14,000 school districts. Another is that even if the information is posted to school websites, it may be posted in ways, such as a scanned document, that Internet search engines cannot read. Public information that should be available instantaneously and at no cost, like so much other information now available via search engines, instead takes hundreds of work-lifetimes and a fortune to gather—if it can be gathered at all.
Consider the nightmare in searching for school board legislative data both within and across school districts. In my own district, one of the 50 largest and wealthiest in the United States, when I want to see how a school board member voted during his term, I must read the entire minutes of each board meeting to extract the votes. And when I want to see how other, comparable districts dealt with a particular issue, it often requires so much time for me to locate the relevant so-called “public” information that it is, for all practical purposes, inaccessible. It is more efficient for me to reinvent the wheel than learn from others.
Admittedly, the Obama administration and Congress are making great efforts to improve access to public school data at the district level. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, wants data reform included in the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. On April 14, he opened a hearing on education data systems with the observation that “data is absolutely critical to education reform.” But the focus was on improved access to student-assessment data.
In the age of Google and the semantic Web, what it means for a public school board and school system to be truly transparent and democratically accountable needs to be fundamentally rethought."
The federal government needs to expand its agenda to address a critical barrier to progress: the failure of schools to post their data to the Web using a well-structured, standardized format—technically known as an “ontology.” Mandating local school districts to post legislative data to the Web in such a common, open, friendly format would take advantage of Web technologies that label and categorize stored data, thus making it easily searchable.
A precedent is Akoma Ntoso, an ontology developed by the United Nations’ department of economic and social affairs that enables the exchange and search of computer-readable legislative data across African parliaments. For example, after the data is posted to the Web, a citizen or policymaker can track malaria legislation for every participating parliament in Africa with a simple query. If the developing world can devise and implement such a technology, so can the developed world, including U.S. public schools.
Searchable, Web-based ontologies of this sort already exist outside the legislative world for many other applications, including for library books, diseases, product identifiers, product prices, product reviews, social media, and financial reporting. The financial-reporting data standard, XBRL, is an especially apt precedent for schools because governments, recognizing it to be a public good, have been mandating its use. XBRL has now been adopted by government agencies in every major developed country, including the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States.
For a school board legislative ontology to work its full magic, it needs to be integrated with other school system ontologies for budget, demographic, and student-assessment data. Governments from local school districts up to the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Census Bureau are already gathering this information in a well-structured, standardized way. The task is to post it to the Web using state-of-the-art semantic Web technology.
Once data is posted to the Web using an ontology, it becomes much easier to ask questions like the ones above to compare and assess school policies and performance. Of course, answering such questions can be done without modern search technologies. But when the cost of answering them increases by orders of magnitude, not only do fewer questions get asked, but those doing the asking are likely to be deep-pocketed elites and special interests. Since control of information is power, the result is a highly undemocratic public school system.
In the age of Google and the semantic Web, what it means for a public school board and school system to be truly transparent and democratically accountable needs to be fundamentally rethought. The time has come for data democratization to be shifted from the periphery to the core of federal education policy. Those with monopoly control of the data will fiercely resist, because it means giving up power. But there are no longer any good technological or economic excuses to allow them to hoard the public’s data. When data is “public,” it should be made public in the fullest sense of the word.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as It’s the Public’s Data