4 Reasons Why One Mom’s Great Idea Will Help Transform Education

When Nasha Fitter, a working mom of two young children, moved her family to the Bay Area, she felt overwhelmed by the process of deciding where to send her children to school. Like many parents, she wanted schools that provide great enrichment and rigorous academics. When researching schools, she could find basic stats like test scores, demographics and clubs on GreatSchools, but found it extremely difficult to find information on the learning program, like whether music was provided or how many AP courses were offered. Again and again, she was told that the only way to get this information was to go on a school tour, which were often scheduled at inconvenient hours, requiring time off work. She was struck by how incredibly inefficient this process was. Nasha was fortunate—she had time and resources to track down this information; she could only imagine how difficult it would be to navigate for low-income families who were struggling to make ends meet. In this digital age, how could it be that there was not a better way to help parents gather information and narrow down their choices? A simple internet search will help you find the restaurant or car rental that best fits what you’re looking for, but not so when it comes to choosing a school—one of the most important decisions that families make.

A Solution for Parents

Clearly, there had to be a better solution for parents. Nasha’s story reflects an all too familiar struggle for so many families. But her response was anything but ordinary. A problem-solver by nature, she set out to fix the problem. She approached school districts and states to request data about schools, such as course enrollment statistics and school resource allocation. She hired legal experts to help navigate government bureaucracy and data scientists to compile data into an intuitive, searchable format, and called it Schoolie. Earlier this year, Nasha called me with an idea—what if we could scale Schoolie’s work nationally by integrating the content within GreatSchools. As a true-blooded data lover, I was clearly excited by the prospect — not just because of the data itself, but because of what I believed the data could spur. Because of Nasha’s insight and diligence, going forward GreatSchools will be the resource for parents across the country who don’t necessarily have time to go on all those school tours. We’re also going a step further, by including civil rights data from the US Office of Civil Rights, to help parents gauge how schools provide learning opportunities to all students, regardless of race, gender, language, and ability. It’s super hip to talk about ideas that are “disrupting” one industry or another. And because I’m super hip too, I’m also going to draw this parallel. Uber is disruptive because it solves a discrete individual’s needs (getting a ride when I need it), and in aggregate, it transforms the landscape and shifts power into the hands of consumers (rides everywhere all the time). Nasha’s idea is also disruptive: it solves an individual’s needs (finding a good school for your kid) and, at scale, can change how we think about education in our country. Here’s why: Improved transparency can get information into the hands of people who need it most. When Nasha began to collect data, she found that in many cases, not only was it not accessible publicly, it wasn’t accessible to anyone. One district responded to her request by mailing literal boxes of paper with information written down school-by-school. BOXES! Clearly, nobody intended to share this information with parents. Far too often, education data reporting is done through the lens of bureaucratic compliance rather than to drive better decision-making. Through projects like this, we’re bringing data out of the basement and into the hands of people who can use it. Facilitating family-school “fit” can connect students to learning opportunities that fuel their passions. The idea that one size doesn’t fit all has taken hold in many aspects of education—curriculum, instruction, school design. Why shouldn’t the same be true for the process of selecting a school? Nobody knows their child like a parent does, and parents and students should be empowered to seek out schools that will foster the type of learning environment where their child will thrive. By combining information about course offerings and resources as well as student outcomes, we can help parents not just find great schools—but find great schools that specifically meet their child’s needs. Data on access to rigorous coursework is the first step to increasing equity in access to college. As the saying goes, “education is the great equalizer.” But this falls apart if our education system does not provide equal access to learning opportunities for kids from all ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Research supports that exposure to rigorous curriculum is a huge predictor of college success, but we found that students from low-income families are exposed to lower variety in academic and enrichment courses than students in affluent communities, creating an unleveled playing field from the start. Through intuitive data presentations and mapping tools, we can give advocates the tools to make the case for increasing access to opportunities among low-income and minority communities. Analyzing trends about the system’s inputs and outputs will help states, districts and funders make better decisions about education investments. Going forward, we’ll have the nation’s single largest repository of school-level information, including robust data on education inputs (e.g. course rigor and enrichment programs) and outputs (e.g. standardized test scores and college-ready graduation rates). With this information compiled in one place, we can uncover insights, for example the disconnect we found between the grades that students receive in AP courses and AP test pass rates, raising important questions like whether grades are inflated or if course rigor must increase. We can identify gaps, such as the fact that only 1 in 5 California high schools offer AP Computer Science, despite the fact that it is one of the highest demand professions in the state. Nasha’s story embodies some of the central core values of our country—how a great idea combined with entrepreneurial spirit can both solve a market need and create real social value to improve the lives of millions of people. At a time when it can seem like all the news is bad news, it’s a great reminder that, behind the scenes, lots of great little ideas are grinding away, and some big great ideas are being born.
An original version of this article appeared on Medium.
Samantha Brown Olivieri is the chief strategy officer at GreatSchools.

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