Monday, February 1, 2010

Obama’s Call for Greater Government Transparency Falls on Deaf Ears in Montgomery County

With ease, I can line up bunches of Montgomery County friends and neighbors who worked Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Some traveled to far away states to knock on strangers’ doors or to work polls to convince their fellow Americans that Obama was the “one.” It worked and we elected the “one.”

Okay, it has been a rough first year in office; however, I would say that most of my County friends and neighbors still believe—still love them some Obama. Heck, I would say that this feeling of love and support is probably universally across the County—a county that gave Obama slightly more than 7 out of 10 votes in November of 2008.

But while we love Obama, there are things about his policies which seem totally at odds with that love. One such oddity is how we feel about government transparency. I actually believe we live in a county—a liberal and progressive one—that is against transparency, especially the kind that President Obama is putting into place.

Let’s get a little specific here. On December 8, 2009, as part of an executive order, President Obama instructed all federal agencies to place online within 45 days three high-valued datasets which could be downloaded by the public. Readers can visit to read more about this bold initiative and to view the actual datasets that were posted on this website.

More than anything else, what amazes me about this initiative is how fast it happened. But I’m also equally impressed with Obama’s commitment to openness. So, all of this got me thinking about openness, transparency and the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). Would MCPS freak if they were required to place online within 45 days three-high valued datasets? Any three? And by the way, many federal agencies have posted way more than three datasets at

Let’s pretend that our love for President Obama is real and MCPS, including other county agencies, buy into a commitment to more open government. Overnight, we all jump on the transparency bandwagon. So, in this new world order, citizens get to weigh in (vote) on which three high valued datasets MCPS places on its website. What would you vote for? I can think of dozens of datasets; however, three quickly come to mind:

1) Schools at A Glance. Click on the link below to read more about this MCPS publication. Currently, this publication is only available as a pdf. I would like to see it converted into an Excel formatted file and downloadable as such. And I’ll bet that all the data behind this annual publication is already available in Excel formats.

2) Jerry’s Kids. Jerry’s Kids is a reference to MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast’s primary grade initiatives (e.g., full-day kindergarten). Jerry’s kids are made up of multiple cohorts of students who are snaking their way through MCPS. Some of these kids are now in our middle schools. I want MCPS to put online datafiles for these kids. We can label them the Class of 2013. The files would contain pretty much every single piece of academic information possible—minus personal identifiers. Government datasets like this already exists. Click here to view how the federal government does its Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) Program, which examines child development, school readiness, and early school experiences.

3) MCPS Graduate Followup. In recent times, MCPS has been citing statistics on college graduation rates by MCPS graduates. Not sure where the statistics are coming from, but I assume that taxpayers’ dollars paid a vendor to track our graduates. I believe such an investment is a wise one. I would, however, like the data shared with the public Again, such a datafile can be striped of personal identifiers and posted on the MCPS website.

Government datasets like this already exists. Click here to view how the federal government does this research and how it then makes the datafiles available to the public.

Over the years, I know that many who post for this Parents Coalition blog, as well as others who have nothing to do with this blog, have asked MCPS for data (some have even filed Freedom of Information requests), and for the most part have been met with silence or nonsense about how creating sharable datasets and files cost a zillion dollars in staff time and effort to create. Honestly, as someone who has been engaged in government and non-government contract research for the past ten years, the claim that creating and sharing public access datasets, even those noted above, costs a lot of money is ridiculous. Most respectable researchers who keep their datasets properly documented and organized can literally crank out clean public use datasets—minus personal identifiers— in a matter of hours. (Note: I’m a researcher at a large social science research organization. I have all kinds of clients—local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as private foundations. Some of these projects require that I created public use datasets, which are then posted on a public website. In reality, a number of these datasets could be created, along with all the proper documentation, in a matter of minutes.)

So, back to my original question: would MCPS freak if I asked that my highlighted three datasets be placed on the district’s public website?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. There would be lots of freaking and hand-ringing. And all of this is so odd given that MCPS publicly claims that it is a data-driven operation and its own accountability department is officially titled, the Office of Shared Accountability. Shared? So, who exactly benefits from the sharing? And it also is odd given how much we claim we love President Obama.

Joseph Hawkins

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