To help families better navigate New York City's often-overwhelming high school choice process, the city education department on Tuesday hosted the unveiling of a half-dozen privately created online and mobile applications, the result of an unprecedented effort by a public school district to make massive amounts of school-level data easily available to software developers and the general public via computer code.
"Our M.O. is to engage nontraditional solution providers to work on some of the most persistent challenges that we face," said Steven Hodas, the executive director of Innovate NYC Schools, an initiative of the department of education's iZone office.
"I think we're the tip of the iceberg," said Hodas, "and I expect in the next year, we'll see a lot of interesting work done by [other] districts with open data."
The New York City effort is believed to be among the first instances in the country in which a public school district has released data via an "application program interface," or API -- essentially computer code that allows software programs to talk with each other. No student-level data is part of the school choice initiative, a key issue given recent concerns about student data privacy.
This year, about 75,000 New York City 8th graders were required to choose the high schools they hoped to attend, and about 70 percent were assigned to one of their top three choices—an outcome generally considered to be positive in a city where parental demand for high-quality schools far exceeds the available supply. Urban districts are increasingly responding to such concerns by moving to common applications and so-called "universal enrollment," intended to make the school choice and assignment process more transparent and equitable. New York City was the first such district to move toward such an algorithm-based assignment system, in the early 2000s.
But the city's high school selection process remains "stressful, difficult, and complicated" for families, Hodas said, in part because they run into difficulty attempting to access good information. Historically, the department has made a phonebook-like print directory available to page through for information on academics, test scores, curricular offerings, and the like.
Through the new "School Choice Design Challenge," the department hopes to spur the creation of more user-friendly digital tools by extending invitations to six groups to work with its data. Each group was given a $12,000 stipend.
Helping 9th graders 'think like experts'
The app deemed most helpful by a panel of New York City high school students was created by FindTheBest, a four-year-old tech company from Summerland, Calif., that created a tool for easily doing side-by-side comparisons of the city's more than 700 high school programs across a dizzying array of indicators, from parent reviews to ACT scores to morning start times.
Although most of the apps were working with essentially the same information, FindTheBest's entry "wasn't as overwhelming because of how they had all the information organized," said student judge Gabriela Calcano, an 11th grader at NYC iSchool in Manhattan.
Other apps developed as part of the contest included opportunities for middle school students to create their own avatars, to search for all the schools on a particular subway line, to create lists of preferred schools that can be shared and worked on collaboratively with friends, to engage in live-streamed webinars with high school staff, and to use a "recommendation engine" that asks a series of questions and provides a list of "friendly suggestions" based on the student's responses.
Allen Kim, a 25-year-old senior product associate in charge of FindTheBest's educational offerings, said his company's approach was all about enabling comparisons that allow users to "think like experts."
Kim said the company already draws on publicly available data to enable comparisons of about 130,000 public K-12 schools and more than 23,000 private schools, as well as colleges and universities, graduate schools, online schools, and massively open online courses, or MOOCs. (And that's not even getting into the operation's consumer and services side, which focuses on everything from smartphone shopping to finding the best hospital.)
But the New York City high school app is "the best comparison we've ever built," he said, because of the unbelievable amount and quality of data that the education department made available.
"We had over 1,300 pieces of information about each high school," he said. "What really wowed us was the school survey data. To hear from parents, teachers, and students ... let us cover not just the hard facts, but also some of the soft areas: What's the environment like? What's the campus feel like? What's the culture? We were really excited to embrace that and put it in our platform."
The DOE has made much of the school-level information to which Kim referred available for years, but it's traditionally been buried in print documents or hard-to-use electronic PDFs. Through the department's first-ever public API, the challenge contestants got direct access to cleaned-up databases with the information available in an electronic format that was easy to manipulate and to merge with other data sets — everything from transportation schedules to neighborhood crime statistics.
FindTheBest, for example, took each New York City high school's average ACT and SAT scores and used the information to provide prospective applicants with a list of colleges and universities where typical students from that high school might gain admission.
Kim said it was all possible because of the API, a strategy that he hopes other districts will soon emulate.
"New York has done a tremendous job of really awakening other states and cities to what the power of data really means and how private companies can leverage the data to really help users make important life decisions," he said.
'A dynamic industry'
All the apps will be made available for free to New York City families for at least the next 18 months, and Hodas of iZone said the education deparment will make its API available to the general public on New York City's open-data portal, as well. The developers will retain all intellectual property rights to their creations, which families are not required to use to make their high school selections.
The DOE's iZone, which has previously run crowdsourcing challenges around creating apps for middle school math and music education, has also committed to regularly refreshing the school-level data that power the new school choice apps, a move that Kim said is huge.
"Education is a very dynamic industry," he said. "Data that's not up-to-date is irrelevant."
Many in the packed crowd at Tuesday night's unveiling agreed and expressed enthusiasm about the new tools.
"I wish I had these earlier," said Calcano, the student judge. "I had no idea what I was doing in middle school, and I ended up choosing the wrong [high] school, and I had to do it all over."
And Parastoo Massoumi, the director of the middle school success center at the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp. in Brooklyn, described the new apps as a "fabulous" resource for the primarily low-income and immigrant families with whom she works.
"They cater to different learning styles, which is really important to me," she said. "They also cater to different audiences. I may use an app in a different way than a parent or student would."
Massoumi said she now uses the education department's high school directory and a hodgepodge of websites to get information about schools, then tries to collate information about different options for her students by hand.
"This is definitely going to improve my life," she said.
This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Education Week.