Data Biz

Back to School with Open Data

0 Comments05 September 2013

Bill Jackson, Founder and CEO,

Bill Jackson, Founder, President and CEO,

In late August, President Obama recognized back-to-school season by proposing a new way to provide Open Data on American education. His idea is for the federal government to rate each college based on factors like graduation rates, student debt, and more to create a measure of value. In addition to guiding federal financial aid, the system would give more useful data to parents and students, building on the College Scorecard website that the government launched earlier this year. But parents of younger kids have had data on K-12 schools for much longer than that, thanks to an organization called GreatSchools that’s pioneered the use of online Open Data about education.

GreatSchools, a nonprofit organization, was started a decade and a half ago by an affable, dedicated teacher named Bill Jackson. Educated in mechanical engineering at Yale, Jackson taught in the U.S. and China through the 1980s until the lure of the Web brought him to Silicon Valley in the nineties. He soon realized that he could marry his passion for education with his technical knowledge to create a website that would help parents choose between different educational options.

Remarkably, GreatSchools is now used by more than 40 percent of K-12 households who rely on it to help select schools for their kids. presents data both from official measures and from public opinion: It shows both a “GreatSchools score” on a scale of 1 to 10 that’s based on state data and a “community rating” of one to five stars based on reviews from parents, students, and school staff. The organization works closely with the U.S. Department of Education, where Jim Shelton, who directs innovation for the Department, has said that GreatSchools is “the only organization of its kind.”

I’ve met with Jackson twice in GreatSchools’ San Francisco offices, where every conference room is named after a children’s book. (We first talked in the Big Red Barn room; I imagine that really challenging meetings are held in the room named for The Little Engine That Could.) Our most recent conversation took place just before GreatSchool’s first annual summit in May 2013. That conference brought together dozens of educators and data analysts from around the country, with a particular focus on GreatSchools’ new program to work with local communities in depth.

No Child Left Behind enables Greatschools to exist.

GreatSchools began when a local trade association hired Jackson to create a site about local schools for a project to show how the Web could be used to build communities.  He still has a printout from the original website on his office wall – a basic site that, as he said, “looks like a brochure.” But this simple start took a lot of work, even though it covered only Silicon Valley. “We actually visited five hundred schools to create this guide,” said Jackson. “In person. And then we scouted the whole Bay Area.”

Just as this grand tour of schools was getting a bit overwhelming, new laws required greater disclosure of school-performance data, and GreatSchools grew wherever the data allowed them to. When a California law required all state schools to report on their performance, GreatSchools covered the state; when five states had similar laws, GreatSchools covered all five of them.

The breakthrough came with the passage of No Child Left Behind. Whatever its shortcomings, this national legislation required every state to publish measures of performance for every public school – a turning point for Open Data about education. No Child Left Behind, said Jackson, “enables us to exist.” The law both provided a new source of data for parents and educators, and began to develop a culture of transparency in K-12 education.

Five years ago, a lot of principals resisted the idea; now they’re used to it.

“Even five years ago,” said Jackson, “a lot of principals hated us. They resisted the idea that somebody was coming to publicly report on them. They’d say, ‘Who are you to do that?’ Now it’s only one in a hundred principals who has that attitude. They’re used to the idea.”

While No Child Left Behind mandated state reporting on educational performance, it left the states a lot of leeway to decide exactly what metrics they would use. GreatSchools has had to put considerable effort into making sense of the data state by state, and has not been able to compare the schools in, say, Massachusetts with those in Montana.

Now some forty-five states and the District of Columbia have agreed to use “common core” standards for performance in English, Language Arts, and Math. The implementation of the common core has been controversial in many places. But ideally the new standards could bring new accountability, not only for individual schools, but for states’ educational quality as a whole.

Parents’ online school ratings showed a ‘high correlation’ with a more rigorous survey.

Although state ratings are becoming an accepted fact of life for educators, Jackson said some school administrators are suspicious of GreatSchools’ “community ratings” – scores on a five-star system derived from parents’, students’, and staff’s opinions. But Jackson believes those ratings are also valid.  Several years ago, he said, “We had the opportunity to compare the ratings given by parents on our site to a full-blown mail-based survey of parents in Arizona charter schools. We found that once we had ten ratings and reviews for a school, there was a high correlation between our results and the mail survey.”

What’s next? The organization has now launched Great Schools Local, partnering with communities around the country (most recently Detroit) to provide customized data and help for parents city by city. Local partners pay to cover the extra costs of these services, and local merchants have been supporting the effort.  It’s a way to move from choosing the best school for your kid to helping develop better schools for the community as a whole.

- Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor,

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