What does it mean to be counted? Gathering and analyzing data on people and the number of things we want to know about people (demographics, performance, health, etc.) is not an out-of-touch, elitist exercise, but rather a way to meaningfully include people, and work to improve their everyday lives. Theory, data, or (worse) both, seem to be distant, sterile, and superfluous conversations from more important personal questions that make up the substance of people’s daily lives. When in fact, “counting,” is a way to ensure that people’s daily lives are being accounted for in large systems that tend, too often, to ignore the whole of human experience. Data, I’d argue, can strengthen the way that all people are considered.
I’m coming back to Colorado from Providence, RI where I spent the last year learning the profound value and impact that data can have on people’s everyday lives, through my work at the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab, a research organization that collaborated with the Rhode Island State government to provide policy solutions to problem areas co-identified by the government and the lab. Data, I discovered, can help identify ways to help improve family nutrition and food security, or college attainment. All of these projects shared two components: data that was extensive and complete, and the goal of improving people’s lives.
I was born in Puerto Rico, and migrated to Colorado with my family when I was five years-old. As a white-passing latina growing up in Colorado I’ve been hyper-cognizant of the ways I was counted. I was included in the number of students of color advertised on my school’s admissions flyers, but never asked to participate in promotional photoshoots, which inevitably had every non-white at the school. I know that what a student looks like doesn’t necessarily correlate to what their experience at home is. Data, for me, was a truer representation of my experience. Now, I work at A+ Colorado, looking at data, and making sure that all students’ experiences are being counted and considered.
Data transparency and data privacy are two stated goals of governance, integral to the health of the Republic, that seem at odds with each other. Litigation with regards to these two issues is complicated by the fact that the future of data collection is amorphous as it becomes increasingly personal and granular. But let us focus on the known quantity: some people are deeply concerned that increased public reporting of school performance data threatens a student’s right to privacy, while others are outraged that there are huge groups of people (low-income white students, Latinx students, black students, Native American students, Asian students, special education students, and English-language learners) where we have no understanding of whether they are meeting academic standards.
Erasure of these students, via data suppression, perpetuates the myth that the white experience is a universal, “baseline experience” — the implication being that the performance of students of color is deviation from a norm. Some Colorado communities are predominantly Latinx, others are predominantly low-income. The status quo is more than the case of a few small schools being suppressed, rather the assertion that the data that are erased are mere asterisks or side characters, and that by getting 76% of the data, we have enough of a gist of the whole story and the key players. That is unacceptable and offensive to the hundreds of thousands that are being ignored.
Explaining why data is personal seems almost comic at times. The main argument against public data reporting, maybe stemming from a misunderstanding of what is being asked, is a concern surrounding individual privacy. It is understood that data is deeply personal. Yet, the accusation made toward the data advocate seems to be that numbers don’t actually represent human experience — that these facts (data) belie the truth of our daily lives. And of course, numbers couldn’t possibly encapsulate every interaction a student faces in the school day. But data is an important check on one part of a school system. It certainly doesn’t convey the whole, but it does provide a tangible basis for accountability, change, and improvement.
Not being counted, a complex, historical and budding form of erasure, is another instance of power being stripped away from communities that have never had power. As a member of the Puerto Rican community, not being counted is a particularly resonant issue. Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico aren’t counted as Americans with a right to vote in presidential or congressional elections (having no Federal representation as a territory), yet I, as a Puerto Rican living in Colorado am privy to more Constitutional rights and representation than my family members that remain on the island. And, most recently, the death count of Puerto Ricans from Hurricane Maria has been politicized and suppressed to obfuscate the gross negligence of the U.S. federal government’s response to the catastrophe, which led to the diasporic flight from the island to the mainland for basic human services like water, medical care, and education. The result of remaining uncounted in these instances is a literal minimization of the scale of the catastrophe. It suggests that Puerto Ricans are not real Americans with a right to vote (yet American “enough” to serve in the U.S. Army.) It leads to, in the best case scenario, the denial of resources that Puerto Rico needs as it recuperates from the second-deadliest hurricane that has ever struck the United States. Not being counted perpetuates the second-class citizenship of Puerto Ricans.
While it may seem like the life or death implications of miscounting in Puerto Rico are miles away from the data suppression of education data in Colorado, there are actually serious consequences stemming from the lack of reporting in Colorado. Understanding whether students of color are reading at grade-level impacts Colorado’s ability to serve these students well. Students that aren’t reading at grade-level are more likely to dropout of school, are more likely to have lower-earning jobs, all of which negatively correlate to health and other outcomes that determine quality of life. These effects will be exacerbated as the demand for skilled labor increases in the U.S..
The current reporting rules and practices that the Colorado Department of Education uses to determine what data is, and is not, reported, has the effect of suppressing massive amounts of information — and thereby doesn’t count, and even discounts, some students. Recently, CDE did release significantly more data than in past years. However, Colorado is still trying to figure out how to satisfy needs for transparency without risking student privacy, and continues to err too much on the side of “privacy.” Their rationale is that we need to protect student information and releasing more data poses a risk to privacy, yet student-level data is not an option that has ever been on the table. However, there is a public interest in how different groups of students are differentially served in Colorado. This stems from a desire to allocate resources equitably, effectively, and to hold different groups accountable.
All data that the government reports, by law, is de-identified (meaning there is no personal information about the student (birthdate, school identifying number, names or addresses attached to a data point) and aggregated; meaning that all data that is reported is of a group of students that share a given characteristic — often their school, ethnicity or race, or a broad indicator of socioeconomic status such as free or reduced lunch eligibility. I’ll further note that while no personally identifiable information is publicly reported, ever, by federal law, aggregation is an added measure that some states have opted to require as a best-practice measure.
Think of this paradox: the government is counting everyone in schools but not everyone is seen. This public visibility is an issue because it impacts representation. Parents and community members in English-language learning (ELL) communities have known for a long time that ELL programs are not as effective as possible. However, advocating for ELL programming that is effective requires a public (whether it is school, district, or statewide) conversation, backed by facts so that communities can identify and share best practices when schools are serving students well, and provide greater supports to schools that aren’t meeting students’ needs. Public will is strengthened by facts.
We cannot answer basic performance questions, not because the data doesn’t exist, but because the data isn’t being reported. These data reporting rules seem like an another government structure which continues to leave groups of students, families, and communities without full knowledge. Without knowledge it is difficult to advocate for change or hold government, whether it is the state, district, or school, accountable. Data suppression hides the truth.
Omission of data due to rules that are intended to protect privacy (when privacy isn’t really at risk) isn’t an unfortunate side effect of an going effort that continues to erase groups from public accountability and also makes it seem like these students aren’t the large group of constituents that they are. As parents, students, educators, businesses, research groups, other partners and advocates try to support the best schools in their communities, an understanding of whether schools are serving all students well is critical to any change. Recently, for example, DPS released data which illuminated how severe the achievement gap is for students of color with disabilities (data which continues to be suppressed by the state with current reporting rules.)This data release was appreciated by the community, and called attention to an important issue, where only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver performed at grade-level. While the district changes and “reorganizes” programming and resources for these students, the data on the severity of the achievement gap has enabled parents, who already know that their child’s needs aren’t being met by the district, to create public attention the changes that the district needs to make if it is going to serve its diverse population.
Data shouldn’t be an either-or. It serves multiple purposes, and there are multiple goals and interests at stake. Colorado shouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to define these goals, rather honestly deal with the trade-offs and consequences of different actions so that we have data transparency that serves all students in Colorado. All students have a right to be counted and seen by their schools, districts, and communities. A failure to do both is a disservice to the hard work our students and schools are making to ensure that all have a quality education.