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‘Frustrating and disappointing’ — how parents feel about LAUSD’s new school accountability tool

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | April 8, 2019

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Parents at a computer station at San Fernando High School. (Photo: LAUSD Facebook page)

*Updated April 9

L.A. Unified’s newest way to share information about how students and their schools are performing is coming up short for parents who find the online site “very frustrating and disappointing.”

Last fall, the district launched its Open Data Portal, a school accountability site with data about academic performance, graduation and college-going rates, enrollment, demographics and attendance. Advocates and parents applauded the transparency effort but also expected it would evolve.

At a school board meeting last month, the district unveiled its first update to the site: the addition of the Open Data Catalog. The catalog offers access to 19 complete sets of records and downloadable data on individual schools and the district as a whole in six topics: academic performance, enrollment, attendance, budget and finance, school climate and facilities projects.

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But parents who spoke at the March 26 meeting were frustrated that the district had not acted on their recommendations for how to make the site easier to use and instead added data intended for researchers and not the general community.

“The user-friendliness of the portal left much to be desired then and still does,” Paul Robak, who serves on two of the district’s three parent committees (Community Advisory and Parent Advisory committees), and spoke at the board meeting, said in an interview. “I’m not quite sure why because not only do they have a full IT department but they pay thousands, if not millions, to consultants to assist in developing such things. I’m very surprised and disappointed to see that after all that time and effort, and money spent, we’re still wondering, ‘Why is it so difficult to navigate this?’”

Parents also noted that the most recent data about schools are nearly two years old, and there is only limited information about the district’s choice programs, including magnets and dual-language programs. To compare those, parents have to go to another site, Explore LAUSD, a school search tool that also launched last September. Independent charter schools are also not included.

“You can only see data by campus but not by each program,” said Evelyn Alemán, whose daughter attends Grover Cleveland Charter High School in the San Fernando Valley. “My daughter’s magnet program is one of the best in the whole district, but you cannot see that information there. I think parents should have easy access to that information so they can make well-informed decisions on what school is best for their kids.”

Robak, who has a seventh-grader at a gifted magnet and a high school senior, said he and other parents of the advisory committees were presented with an early version of the site, but their recommendations weren’t addressed in either last fall’s launch or this spring’s update that is meant for researchers.

“The district is always developing something. They never quite finish. And before they finish one thing, they sort of let that go and try something else — what I call the flavor of the month,” he said. “It’s very concerning.”

He added that “it’s nice to have some data available without having to file a Public Records Act Request to get it,” but he doesn’t think it is an effective tool for parents. “On the one hand, I want to tell parents at my school, ‘Hey, there’s this great Open Data Portal you can go to, it’s really great,’ but then hearing parents share their negative feedback, what can I say to that? I’m trying to support the district’s initiatives as much as I can. … It’s just very frustrating and disappointing to me.”

Yolie Flores, a former District 5 board member, said the portal needs to be more parent-friendly and parents need help navigating it.

“We don’t engage and equip parents to be able to understand [student performance] data” so they can “keep their kids on track,” Flores said.

And “it can’t just be a digital portal. A lot of our families don’t have access to the internet, they may not have computers at home. We know they have cell phones. And if they haven’t been walked through what these numbers mean, then they will be meaningless. And I predict that a lot of our families don’t have the experience reading these kinds of data charts to discern, ‘What does this mean for my kid? And what do I do with this?’”

The Open Data project is the district’s response to the frustration many parents experienced using the state’s new accountability tool, the California School Dashboard, which since its launch in the spring of 2017 has been criticized for not being parent-friendly.

The district’s goal with the Open Data Portal was to compile information from different sources, including state data, in one site so parents can find everything they need to compare schools. It was also meant to be “a change agent” that “shines a light on our perennially under-performing schools,” board Vice President Nick Melvoin, who co-authored the Open Data resolution, said in January last year when it was approved.

That transparency is even more important this spring, he said, as the district is trying to convince Los Angeles taxpayers to support its parcel tax on the June ballot.

“I think it’s important being transparent to build public trust, especially in a time when we’re going after the voters and taxpayers asking for more resources that are needed, but we need to show what we do with our existing ones,” said Melvoin in an interview after the data catalog was presented to the board.

Measure EE, which the school board last month approved placing on the June 4 ballot, would authorize a parcel tax for L.A. residents living within the school district boundaries. The district is hoping it will raise $500 million a year in revenue.

“I have been encouraging people if they don’t find what they’re looking for to request it through the portal so we can have a sense of who’s using it,” Melvoin said. “We’re always engaging with parents to find out what’s useful and how they engage with it.”

Melvoin said Open Data sets “a policy for transparency” and for continual improvement toward having one hub for parents to choose and compare schools, all under one unified enrollment website which is currently linked to the Open Data dashboard and catalog. It eventually can also be linked to a new school assessment framework, similar to a report card, that will allow parents to more easily compare schools as well as select the measures by which to evaluate them.

Melvoin noted that this School Performance Framework is still in development, and “its purpose is accountability: parents, school leaders and other stakeholders should be able to understand and compare how well schools are helping students reach their academic potential by looking at multiple factors, including academics, socio-emotional and school climate.”

He said the School Performance Framework “will become a part of Unified Enrollment’s Find a School feature. It will ultimately be a tool that parents can use to compare schools and find the best option for their children.”

“The goal of Open Data,” he said, “is to increase the transparency of district information by sharing data sets with researchers and providing infographics to understand data for non-researchers. Once the School Performance Framework is up and running, some of its data may also be on the Open Data site as well.”

The framework was established by a resolution sponsored by board member Kelly Gonez and is being developed by a group that includes school leaders, labor partners, parents, advocates and district staff, Gonez said in an email. The group is working out “the metrics, potential configurations, and weighting that will be used to evaluate schools’ performance. District staff are now working to pressure-test the model to ensure it provides an accurate look at our schools – both their overall achievement, student growth and socioemotional factors,” Gonez said. “They will be updating the workgroup and seeking additional feedback from key stakeholders, ahead of a public launch this fall.”

Katie Braude, co-founder and executive director of the parent advocacy group Speak UP, is a member of that working group and said the district is using the CORE framework — a collaborative of school districts in California that has developed data analysis tools about how schools are performing — as a reference in the development of the school performance framework. But she thinks there should be more accountability attached to it.

“It’s one thing to let parents and families know how well schools are doing so they can make choices. It’s another thing to identify struggling schools and say, ‘This is what we’re doing about them.’ And that’s the piece we haven’t heard about.”

Braude called the Open Data Portal “such an important big step forward that they’re actually sharing data. I think some of it works quite well. The one area that I’m hoping they would improve is the way they present budget information. That’s one of the biggest red flags for us.

“It’s still difficult to get full transparency on budget information, but I think there are ways it can be presented in a way that parents could much more easily understand where the funds are going,” Braude added. “I think it could be presented in a way that actually collapses the expenditure categories into something that is meaningful for parents. I think if we could also tell how much money is going to each school, that would be extremely helpful.”

Oscar Lafarga, executive director of the district’s Office of Data and Accountability, who also spoke to the board during the presentation of the data catalog, said the district is working to align the current LCAP scorecard into the Open Data Dashboard.

The Local Control Accountability Plan district’s scorecard includes information on student outcomes as required by state law — the Local Control Funding Formula — which allows schools to receive additional funding for highest-needs student groups such as English learners and low-income students.

Lafarga also said the district will inform parents about the newest addition of the Open Data Catalog portal the same way it did with the launch of the district’s dashboard: by contacting the local districts directly, school administrators, parent centers and through the district’s parent committees. He said there is an Open Data Hotline that’s also in Spanish: call (213) 481-3300, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“We’re exploring working with the city and other third parties, and we’re starting to outreach community parent advisory groups to find out what information they want to see in this resource,” he said.

How to use the Open Data Dashboard website:

When visiting the Open Data portal by clicking here, you will see two choices: 1) Open Data Dashboard and 2) Open Data Catalog. Click on the Dashboard, then at the top of the page, select from these topics: Student Demographics, Attendance, Student Outcomes, College & Career Readiness and College Persistence.

To find your school, scroll down below the graphics to “Schools List,” then type in the search field the name of the school. The information about that school will be presented in one single row. In the upper right-hand corner above that row, you will find two options: “Schools List” and “Schools List All Indicators.” Click on the latter one to see all “Student Outcomes” available.

To find out more about the school, click on the colored “Unified Enrollment” logo to the right of the school’s name, which will take you to that school’s site on Explore LAUSD.

*This article was updated to specify the district committees on which Paul Robak serves as a member and to add details from Melvoin about the School Performance Framework.

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