Research report

Spectrum of trust in data: New York City parents navigating school choice

6 Mar 2018

Recent years have seen an increase in the provision of “school choice” within school districts nationwide. And yet, there is a gap in school choice literature around how parents consume and interpret online information sources during the decision-making process. We know very little about parental estimations of the validity, trustworthiness, and representational value of school data. This report presents the findings of a qualitative, semi-structured, interview-based study of a racially, socio-economically, and geographically diverse group of 30 New York City (NYC) school decision makers conducted between May and November 2017.

Our findings show that the parent-facing data displays produced by the NYC Department of Education are virtually unused and difficult to find and read, even for those with high information literacy. Most parents reported that Google was their first stop, and that they checked school websites and made use of independent school review sites like Insideschools and GreatSchools. Through discussions of these practices, we locate parents’ views of data on schools along three positions on a data trust spectrum:

Data averse: Predisposed against using data to make decisions, assuming a perfunctory approach to information seeking and relying on gut instinct; most commonly articulated position.

Contextual: Data is seen as nuanced and contextually produced. This view is typically espoused by those attending underperforming schools or ensconced in a school community.

Representationalist: Data is regarded as an unproblematic representation of reality. Data on racial demographics, poverty rate, and test scores are often viewed through this lens

We conclude that providing data to parents within the context of a market-driven school choice ecosystem is not an effective tool for equalizing educational opportunity, but rather a mechanism that replicates and perpetuates existing inequalities. We also found that the general public is more primed to appreciate the limits of quantitative knowledge and statistical modes of analysis than data specialists may realize, especially in domains, like schooling, where they have personal experience. And practically, most of this data is collected to satisfy the requirements of federal accountability legislation, but it is repurposed to support informed parental choice. There is a conflation of the goals of the two, such that parent needs aren’t being maximally served.

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