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N.Y.C. turns to open data to help with high school choice

By Benjamin Herold for Education Week on Nov 15, 2013 12:01 PM

edweekTo 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."

Student judge Gabby Calcano, 16, right, tries out an app developed by Unigo during the judging of the School Choice Design Challenge on Tuesday in New York. At left is Peter D'Angelo, 36, the company's Tech Lead, and Kema Christian-Taylor, 22, the company's editor. (Emile Wamsteker/Education Week)

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.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Education Week.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 15, 2013 12:23 pm

"Education is a dynamic industry" can smell the profit motive here.

Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on November 15, 2013 4:06 pm
Bingo !!
Submitted by Benjamin Herold on November 15, 2013 8:00 pm
Hello Ron, Nice to hear from you, thanks to the Notebook for picking this story up. I think the "profit motive" question is quite interesting when it comes to this kind of open data work, hope you won't mind if I share a few ideas here that didn't make it into the story. Mr. Hodas of NYC's iZone described this project as an alternative to the traditional procurement process. Rather than spending months tailoring an RFP with specific guidelines, soliciting bids and choosing a vendor, then paying a six-figure contract for development of a product that would likely be out of date by the time it was ready to be made public, NYC focused its efforts on making already-public data available in a more usable format, then invited developers to use their own ingenuity to come up with original ideas. The result was that all told, NYC DOE invested $72,000 for 6 different products that were ready in 8 weeks. From a district standpoint, there's clearly a lot to gain (and save) from this approach of making data "open" via API. I think there are, however, many important questions to be asked about the sustainability of the vendors' involvement in such an initiative, given that most (but not all) of the participants in this challenge are for-profit companies. It's no secret that many ed-tech startups are struggling with how to turn smart ideas into reliable revenue streams - and that a primary vehicle many are exploring is the monetization of users' personal data. In this particular instance, I think such concerns are muted because my understanding is that none of the apps require users to register or provide any personally identifiable information. But it's clearly something to keep an eye on, as evidenced by the flurry of recent legislative and legal action related to children's online privacy. And to the specific quote from Mr. Kim in the story: I have heard from many parents, citizens, journalists, and even a Notebook commenter on this story that lack of up-to-date, accurate data and slow, inefficient channels for making public data public are endemic problems among many school districts, and I think many across the spectrum of stakeholders have welcomed the commitment by the nation's largest district to keep such a wide range of data about its schools continually refreshed and accessible. Thanks, Ben
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 16, 2013 7:58 am
Hi Ben: As usual I thank you for keeping me up to date on the issues. However, may I ask a simple line of questions? Exactly what is meant by "making public data public?" Do we mean making student information and data public? Or do we mean data about schools which should be made public? In data about schools, exactly what data are we talking about and what would that look like? How would we know that the data on schools is accurate, credible and reliable? As you well know, the Right to Know Act is one of the most abused processes in charter school and public school accountability to "the public." Also, when I worked for the district as an administrator, we guarded the privacy of student records religiously and we would give that information to no one other than the students and their parents and than those of us who had legitimate access to it for the right reasons. Has our ethical template changed?
Submitted by Education Grad ... on November 16, 2013 1:52 pm
Rich, You raise some great points. From a Special Education Teacher's perspective, I guard student information very closely. I can only share information with other SDP employees and agency employees who have a legitimate educational interest in the child AND with the parent's consent. Special Education Teachers, the SEL, Principal, school counselor, and maybe the secretary are the only ones who can access the special education records file cabinet. So on a school-based level, I don't think the template has changed much since you were an AP with the District. The bigger question is what's happening in the central office with regard to student data and information when it comes to signing contracts with companies that want access to data and student information. The procedures should be fairly similar across states because of FERPA.
Submitted by Benjamin Herold on November 16, 2013 2:38 pm
Rich, EGS, & Marc - Thanks all for your commentary. With this particular example in NYC, the data made available to developers is all school-level data that already was (or should have been) made public: test scores, average daily attendance, curricular offerings, graduation rates, ACT/SAT scores, parent/teacher/student survey results, location, student:teacher ratio, etc. Previously, though, the data was in disparate places and generally hard to access (a several-hundred page print directory, scattered websites & spreadsheets, etc.) and was hard to keep up-to-date. Certainly there are legitimate questions to be asked about how holistic a portrait of a school any such data can offer, there are many questions about the reliability and validity of standardized test score data, etc. I found it interesting that the student judges for this contest in NYC were particularly interested in/grateful for the way the winning project emphasized the results of parent, student, and teacher surveys - the students really wanted to hear from people on the ground what they thought of a given school. There are also important questions to be asked about what types of user data the third-party app developers in this contest are collecting and what they do with that data. Although it's not particularly relevant in this instance, in general, hen it comes to student-level data that is private and protected FERPA, districts are facing a whole set of new challenges that they are generally not dealing with thoughtfully or comprehensively yet. A great deal of student-level data, eg, is now stored on third-party operated cloud servers, and there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty around how that data may be shared, who is responsible for securing it, etc. The most prominent example is inBloom, a large effort to create cloud-based data repositories for states that would contain massive amounts of student-level data that could be shared via API with third-party vendors with the permission of the school district. Parents in Colorado, New York, Louisiana and elsewhere have been particularly vocal in their oppositon to this new privacy template, prompting some high-profile withdrawals from the project and a recent lawsuit filed in NY. Most outside-expert types seem to agree that there are many scenarios under which sharing such data in this way is necessary (Eg, with those operating school bus systems, who need student addresses), extremely cost-effective, and potentially hugely educationally beneficial (for those who prioritize "personalized learning" based on adaptive responses to an individual students' skills.) There is also a general consensus, however, that the current regulations and contracting procedures around data security are woefully inadequate. I would expect data privacy to be a big one of the biggest issues in K-12 education over the coming year or so - you will almost certainly be hearing a lot more about this. Ben
Submitted by Education Grad ... on November 16, 2013 2:02 pm
Ben, I'm very opposed to cloud-based systems like inBloom. I'm not a parent, but when I have children, I will make sure to put in writing that my children's data cannot be stored in a cloud-based system like inBloom without my explicit consent. I'm sure there are others who share my position. EGS
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 16, 2013 2:42 pm
Thanks Ben. Sounds a bit Orwellian to me. Kinda reminds me of when back in the day I sat around with the students reading Animal Farm and we discussed all of its implications. At the end of the unit we watched a video of Animal farm played out by "shadow figures" as the characters. Kind of ironic in light of today's issues, isn't it? My high school remedial reading students all understood the deal. I fail to be able to think of even one legitimate reason why any private entity would be given any student data, especially individual test scores and other student sensitive information.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on November 16, 2013 9:18 pm
Rich---This guy, Ben, needs a reality check in a big way. You're right Orwell is alive and well, well, not well, but alive. Giving any credence to anything anti democratic on its face, is either pathetic and dumb or just dumb. Their goal is to make money on the kids and issues like privacy and basic rights, be damned in the process. Hey, their poor anyway so who cares??!! King Longshanks used to send the Irish into battles first so the enemy could waste arrows killing them. He would then save his elite English troops until the enemy was essentially out of arms before sending them in. I know it's not a great analogy but Nutter is Longshanks, throwing the poor to the wolves and doing it deliberately. Hite is, well, you already know what he is.
Submitted by Helen Gym on November 15, 2013 3:20 pm

Important differences:

  • NYC is focused only on in-district schools - no charters or non-public schools are part of school assignment.
  • While it's nice to think that a cute computer program resulted in the accurate placement of students, the fact is that people matter more. More than 200 people work in the NYC Office of Student Placement to ensure that students are placed accurately.
  • Compare NYC to Philly. NYC has five times the number of students than Philly. But guess how many staff are in Philadelphia's student placement office? Five.
  • Transportation for students in NYC is free. You must live more than 1.4 miles away from a school in order to qualify for free transportation (generally SEPTA passes - not buses) in Philly.

Data privacy, wireless access, and the pathetic lack of information we receive through "portals" like are also massive weaknesses that should result in caution in Philadelphia. The lack of infrastructure and rigor in understanding much less documenting and recording the elements of quality schools are significant here in Philadelphia and would take significant effort to overcome.



Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on November 15, 2013 3:24 pm
Thanks Helen. What a tangled web we weave.... There is not enough "expertise" in the world to come up anything near equity, because equity was never the issue, sorting was.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on November 16, 2013 2:42 pm
Helen, You make excellent points. I’d like to offer a special education perspective on the use of algorithms. Computer programs do not work for many students with special needs. For students whose IEPs designate Supplemental Emotional Support, Supplemental Autistic Support, Supplemental Life Skills Support, or Supplemental Multiple Disabilities Support ("self-contained classrooms"), the Special Education Director for a school's learning network must authorize the placement of students receiving services in one of these placements. Some children move from one type of classroom to another, for example, Life Skills Support to Autistic Support or Autistic Support to Multiple Disabilities Support. When a child’s family moves or the child’s disability classification changes, it may be necessary for the child to change schools or change classrooms within a school. Sometimes, a child can stay at the same school if the school has more than one type of the self-contained special ed program/service. If the school has room for the child to switch from one class to another, the switch is a pretty easy process. However, sometimes a change of school is necessary. This process can become complicated because of transportation and if multiple children from the same family are involved. A parent can request to have both children moved to the same school. Either way, the Special Education Director must sign off on the change. When a child's disability classification changes and requires a change of services and placement, finding a school as close to the child's home as possible is important in order to keep transportation costs under control. Parents don't want to have to drive across the city if they need to pick up their child for an appointment or to attend school events. However, there is no computer algorithm that will work to place students with special needs who spend most of their time in a self-contained classroom because placement is BASED ON AVAILABILITY. There has to be a slot open in the requisite classroom, as designated in the IEP. Until such a slot is open, services must be provided in the existing school. This is particularly true for children whose placement changes once the school year has started and when multiple siblings are involved. Parents sometimes ask where their child with special needs will attend school if the family moves or when he/she goes to middle school or high school. There is no feeder pattern set in stone because it's all based on availability. For Elementary School X, there may be a middle school that most children in Autistic Support from ES X attend. But if the AS classes are already at capacity at this middle school, then the students may have to attend a different school with middle school grades. Given the District's current financial circumstances, there isn't much flexibility to hire more teachers in order to open more special education classrooms or reduce caseload sizes. The lack of money makes complicated situations even more complicated. There is no algorithm that can account for what the IEP states as well as what the parent wants. This requires professional judgment and considering each child on a case by case basis. There could be involvement from the Special Education Director, Coordinator for particular special education programs (e.g. AS, ES, MDS and LSS), transportation officials, and of course the parents/guardians, teacher, and Special Education Liaison. When it comes to special education, the process is often too complicated and too individualized for an algorithm to work. EGS
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on November 15, 2013 7:00 pm
this a great way to select a high school, if you believe the "data." but the information in the special high school addition of the notebook is full of erroneous numbers from the district. the district is not a reliable source for student data. and, judging from their new performance profile, neither is the state. so before we start judging students, teachers, schools, and districts on data, let's make sure we have the numbers right.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 16, 2013 12:48 am
Just another article to support the Universal Enrollment mess being put forth by the School Dictatorship.
Submitted by Marc Brasof (not verified) on November 16, 2013 12:50 pm
The unmeasureables are what matter when selecting a school. And the measureables have been corrupted. If there is an on-line system to streamline the application process, so be it. This project takes us further away from the real conversation, which is the need to examine the readiness of all schools, administrators, teachers, and communities to serve struggling students, and the state and federal policies and practices that refuse to feed a system well and simultaneously expect miracles. Any other conversation about school improvement is mostly a waste of time and resources. Shifting the blame around or sorting kids out only undermines our democratic way of life. How will America thrive under such conditions?
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on November 16, 2013 9:05 pm
Marc---It's not designed to succeed but rather to fail. They work at it. They look forward to it so they can privatize as much as possible under the guise of "reform." Miracles are the last thing they hope to see. Yes, it does undermine Democracy but only in the inner cities where the poor and marginalize live so they're ripe for the taking. "People" like Nutter exist in all urban areas who are giddily doing their part to throw their own under the bus for a price. This is ALL about making money and has nothing to do with helping the poor. Don't over think it; just look at the facts and go from there.
Submitted by Edward Stumpf (not verified) on November 23, 2013 4:45 am
This is good news. The school choice system will definitely help many of us. Now we can know about schools before getting admitted.
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