Monday, March 28, 2011
by Joseph Hawkins
If you go to the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) public website and attempt to find Excel files—real data which can be “played” with—you will find nothing. All you will find are Portable Document Format files, commonly referred to as PDFs or Adobe files.
I have always advocated for access to real data. Why not? If taxpayers are supporting a data-driven school district—and this concept comes out of MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast’s mouth every 10 seconds—then surely we cannot be afraid of sharing data. Shouldn’t a useful document such as Schools at a Glance exists as an Excel file? Click here to see Schools at a Glance:
But instead of focusing on why MCPS always says no to public requests for real data or informs the requester that it will cost a zillion dollars to create data, let’s visit three large public school districts’ public websites and see what real data they offer up to the public.
The Chicago Public Schools provides users with a rich variety of downloadable Excel files. My two favorite files—the Advanced Placement (AP) results file which provides rich details for all city high schools (including race/ethnicity information) and the National Student Clearinghouse results file. Isn’t Superintendent Weast out and about bragging on the MCPS Clearinghouse data? Why not share? Click here to see why Chicago is my kind of data town:
For each school in its system, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools provide in downloadable Excel files basic enrollment data, attendance and mobility rates, and graduation and dropout rates. Most of this information is the data found in the MCPS Schools at a Glance document. Miami-Dade also provides an Excel for on performance measures from 2003 through 2010. Click here to see what Miami provides:
The New York City Public Schools are not as data friendly as Chicago or Miami, but they provide access to some Excel files. If nothing else, they underscore the possibilities and the spirit behind being data friendly. Click here to see what New York City provides:
When it comes to real data, PDFs are never the starting point but rather an end point. Data people know this!
A document like the MCPS Schools at a Glance clearly resides first as data, either as one huge Excel file or multiple Excel files or in some database that can create and export data formatted as Excel files. Regardless, the data in those files can be manipulated and “played” with—one is not able to play with information in PDFs without a lot of labor devoted to reformatting and reentering information.
It seems to me that MCPS could place on its public website Schools at a Glance—as well as other data files (e.g., AP results, National Student Clearinghouse results)—in file formats that are data-friendly. And when that happens, I promise I’ll stop asking Show me your data!