Thursday, June 2, 2011

Opinion: Public Information

In my previous post I discussed the Year 12 outcome results for 2010 released by the Queensland Studies Authority. The night I wrote that post I asked QSA whether more readily consumable formats (such as spreadsheet formats, for example) were available. Today I received a very brief and definitive reply:
The data supplied on our website are not supplied in any other format. This is to prevent the data being manipulated into league table type formats.
Taken along with their FAQ, QSA is unambiguously against the construction of school league tables. Similarly, the national My Schools website is completely structured around preventing any mass comparison of schools.

Are we really leveraging public information as effectively as possible?


I wonder what the point of collecting and releasing statistics is if not to compare and analyse data? I'm not sure how much money the collection and processing of the NAPLAN or Year 12 outcomes has cost and will cost year on year, but whatever amount this constitutes is public money. Releasing these statistics to the public confirms that the corresponding data belongs in the public sphere. Why create a website or a statistics publication, ostensibly for providing information to the community, and purposely cripple it?

The ironic fact is that the measures taken prevent comparison would not prevent the determined investigator.

The State and Federal governments have vastly increased levels of standardised assessments and the collection of metrics within our school systems. Their outright fear of what analysis may show seems to indicate how conflicted they find themselves.

Contrast this approach to public information with the US data.gov initiative, established shortly after Barrack Obama assumed the presidency in 2008. From the about page of that site:
As a priority Open Government Initiative for President Obama's administration, Data.gov increases the ability of the public to easily find, download, and use datasets that are generated and held by the Federal Government...Data.gov strives to make government more transparent and is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. The openness derived from Data.gov will strengthen our Nation's democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.
My opinion is that the fear of the consequences of school 'league tables' appearing in the public in no way supersedes the government's obligation to provide data in a usable form to the citizens that paid for it. What insights are we missing out on? And what innovations? Why are we spending the money collecting this information if not to use it?


Incredibly, denying public access to this information as a dataset makes identifying under-performing schools,  determining the causes of disadvantage and resolving underlying causes of inequality in education more difficult. 

To be clear, I believe a number of a critical factors determine the success of education. A student can do poorly at a 'good' school and exceptionally at a 'bad' school. It is likely that the behaviour and example of parents is far more critical to the child's success.