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July 01 2011

15:00

ProPublica’s newest news app uses education data to get more social

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a data set — the most comprehensive to date — documenting student access to advanced classes and special programs in U.S. public high schools. Shorthanded as the Civil Rights survey, the information tracks the access schools provide to their students for offerings, like Advanced Placement courses, gifted-and-talented programs, and higher-level math and science classes, that studies suggest are important factors for educational attainment — and for success later in life.

ProPublica reporters used the Ed data to produce a story package, “The Opportunity Gap,” that analyzes the OCR info and other federal education data; their analysis found that, overall and unsurprisingly, high-poverty schools are less likely than their wealthier counterparts to have students enrolled in those beneficial programs. The achievement gap, the data suggest, isn’t just about students’ educational attainment; it’s also about the educational opportunities provided to them in the first place. And it’s individual states that are making the policy decisions that affect the quality of those opportunities. ProPublica’s analysis, says senior editor Eric Umansky, is aimed at answering one key question: “Are states giving their kids a fair shake?”

The fact that the OCR data set is relatively comprehensive — reporting on districts with more than 3,000 students, it covers 85,000 schools, and around 75 percent of all public high schoolers in the U.S. — means that the OCR data set is also enormous. And while ProPublica’s text-based takes on the info have done precisely the thing you’d want them to do — find surprises, find trends, make it meaningful, make it human — the outfit’s reporters wanted to go beyond the database-to-narrative formula with the OCR trove. Their solution: a news app that encourages, even more than your typical app, public participation. And that looks to Facebook for social integration.

The app focuses on measuring equal access on a broad scale: It tracks not only the educational opportunities provided by each school, but also the percentage of teachers with two years’ experience or less — who, as a group, tend to effect smaller attainment gains than their more experienced counterparts — and the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of poverty. (More on the developers’ methodology here.)

ProPublica leads the field in developing news apps; each one requires careful thought about how users will actually navigate — and benefit from — the app. With this one, though, “we were focusing a lot more on what behaviors we wanted to encourage,” says Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. ProPublica thinks about how organize reporters, both within and outside of its newsroom, around its stories, notes Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting. “Here, we wanted to take it one step further.”

With that in mind, the app invites both macro and micro analysis, with an implicit focus on personal relevance: You can parse the data by state, or you can drill down to individual schools and districts — the high school you went to, or the one that’s in your neighborhood. And then, even more intriguingly, you can compare schools according to geographical proximity and/or the relative wealth and poverty of their student bodies. (Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, just down the street from the Lab, has 1,585 students, 38 percent of whom receive a free or reduced-price lunch; Medfield Senior High, a few miles southwest of Cambridge, has 920 students and a 1-percent free/reduced lunch rate. Four percent of Rindge and Latin’s students are enrolled in advanced math courses; for Medfield High, the rate is 42 percent.) “It really is an auto-story generator,” Umansky says.

And sharing — the Facebook aspect of the app — is a big part of the behavior ProPublica’s news apps team wanted to encourage. They considered social integration from a structural perspective, notes Al Shaw, the developer who authored the app, and worked with Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s Journalist Program Manager, to optimize the app-to-Facebook interface. One small-but-key feature: With that integration, users who are signed into Facebook can generate an individual URL for each cluster of data they dig up — the Rindge and Latin-versus-Medfield comparison, say — to make sharing and referencing the data almost seamless. The resulting page has a “share on Facebook” button along with a note: “Use this hashtag to share your insights on Twitter: #myschoolyourschool.”

The ed-data app isn’t social for its own sake; instead, it serves the broad and sometimes nebulous goal of having impact — on both a personal and a policy level. “We invest so much time into acquiring data and cleaning data and making sense of data,” Michel notes; ultimately, though, data doesn’t mean much unless people can understand how it immediately affects them, their communities, their kids. Its newest app, Michel says, is part of ProPublica’s broader strategy: to make data, overall, more social. (They’d like to do a similar integration with Twitter, too, she says.) The point is to find ways to marry social and story, to turn online interactions into their own kind of data sets so, she says, “people can layer their stories on top of them.”

February 18 2011

19:30

Chattarati wants to change how we talk about schools

Last month, the state of Tennessee released its comprehensive report card on pre-K-12 education for 2010.

The news wasn’t good. In Hamilton County, the seat of Chattanooga, not only did schools as a unit not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals; in addition, not even half of the county’s elementary school students were able to demonstrate grade-level proficiency in math and reading. Overall, the data suggested, 37 percent of Hamilton’s K-12 schools aren’t meeting the (not-terribly-ambitious) education standards set by the federal government.

That’s a problem for Tennessee’s education system. But it’s also, argues one news publisher, a problem for journalism. Chattarati, a community news site for Chattanooga, is trying to do its part to improve its community’s public education system by making the data about that system comprehensible to readers. The broad goal: to change how we talk about schools.

“We wanted to have productive conversations about how the schools and students were performing here in our local county system,” John Hawbaker, Chattarati’s editor, told me. “It’s really easy to look at [the data] and say, ‘Okay, our county system got a D overall.’ You could bemoan it for a few days, and then move on.”

“But that doesn’t help anybody solve the problem. And we all have a vested interest in how the schools perform,” he says. “So it was really important for us to take a deeper look. We wanted to change the conversation.”

To do that, Chattarati’s education editor, Aaron Collier, put together an interactive, graphic depiction of the state report card results. (Chattarati started with math scores at Hamilton Country elementary schools, but plans to break the data down further by subject: another for science, another for reading, another for social studies, and so on. The plan is to produce a new graphic, in the same style, every week.) The journalists employed a local freelance designer, DJ Trischler, to design the graphic — it was inspired, Hawbaker told me, by the clean images and bold colors of the graphics in GOOD magazine — and worked together on it over the course of a couple weeks. In their spare time.

“What we knew from the beginning,” Hawbaker says, “is that we wanted to find a visual way to represent the two different measures that schools and students are graded on”: achievement (that is, how much a student learned over a year in relation to an external, set goal) and value-added (that is, year-over-year progress). Of those two, achievement tends to get the most attention, Hawbaker notes; “but I think it paints a really interesting picture — and there’s a lot more you can learn — if you’re able to look at both of them, side by side. So we wanted to represent that visually.”

That led to a grid design that puts the low-achieving, low-value-added schools at the bottom left, and the high-achieving, high-value-added schools at the top right. So you have both overall learning and relative improvement tracked on the same chart. “There’s a lot of data there; you can’t get around it,” Hawbaker notes. “But we tried to present it in a way that was easy to understand.”

That easy-to-understand aspect is key: Often, challenges in the education system — or, for that matter, problems in any huge, complex bureaucracy — can be amplified by their intimidation factor alone: When we can’t wrap our head around the problems in the first place, how can we hope to try to solve them? Complexity fatigue can be one of the biggest, broadest impediments to finding solutions to common problems. The charts Chattarati is building, like its dataviz counterparts at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere, offers a micro solution to the macro problem: They try to take the “data” out of “dataset,” making sense out of the information they contain. And making that information, overall, less cognitively intimidating.

“We’ve gotten so many private comments: emails, people talking to us,” Hawbaker says. “I had a teacher at my daughter’s school stop me and tell me how much she liked it. It’s been gratifying.”

As Hawbaker and Collier, put it in a post announcing the experiment: “The temptation, of course, is to resign ourselves to disparaging talk and absolve ourselves of the school system with the coming of hard news. But with Tennessee’s dramatic shift toward tougher curriculum standards, the success of our schools will depend on an informed, community-wide dialog on some of the challenges they face.”

The site’s experiment is a small but meaningful way to get beyond the statistics — which, they hope, will help empowerment to win out over resignation. “Every step of the way,” the journalists note, “our goal is to equip you to participate in a conversation addressing this question: How can we better serve our students?”

November 12 2009

04:19

GothamSchools targets loyal and casual users with different content

gothamschools

This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

GothamSchools, like most news Web sites, serves multiple audiences: one part loyal readers and insiders and another part casual readers. But does the same kinds of content appeal to both of these audiences?

Regular readers are much more knowledgeable about a beat and some of these readers are even experts. The kind of content that appeals to these people is much different than drive-by readers, who may be new to an issue. These differing audiences with differing expectations and knowledge levels have led editors at GothamSchools to develop different kinds of content to appeal to each audience.

GothamSchools attracts a lot of insiders in the New York City education scene: teachers, principals, parents, education policy makers, other education journalists, etc. This audience is very knowledgeable and they’re coming to GothamSchools for the latest information on New York City schools. These people don’t need to wait until the dust has settled around a story; they’re fine with learning tidbits along the way.

For this segment of the audience, GothamSchools has short blog posts under the heading “Margin notes” that break news, report a story as its unfolding, excerpt another blog, give thoughts from someone in the education community, link to content around the Web and more. These blog posts can either help tell more about a previously reported story or they can help tell tidbits as a story begins to take shape. This is content, however, that most likely won’t appeal to casual readers and may even confuse some.

These posts don’t have to identify everyone because insiders know who the players are. These posts may also crowdsource and solicit user suggestion. GothamSchools’ editors view these blog posts as a place to get users involved with reporting.

“When we’re tapping into our insider pool, that’s a blog post,” writer and editor Elizabeth Green said.

On the other hand, most casual readers would be lost if they just stumbled upon a short blog post that didn’t contain any background information or identify all key players. For this audience, GothamSchools offers longer content that is written much like a newspaper story. These pieces are thoroughly reported, involve talking to lots of sources and never contain information from one side of an issue. These stories are self contained and don’t rely on other GothamSchools content to tell a larger story.

These stories serve regular readers fine, but they’re more aimed at casual and drive-by readers. A parent who may have received a link in her e-mail would benefit much more from a thorough, self-contained piece than from a short blog post that excerpts another blog or just has a tidbit about an issue.

“We’re certainly a niche site, but we have a lot of general readers,” Green said about GothamSchools ability to appeal to casual users.

This may seem like arguing semantics. How do readers even know which content is aimed at them? GothamSchools recently rolled out a new visual design that indents blog posts from the rest of the page and puts a double carrot, >>, next to these posts. By having a visual way of differentiating between stories and blog posts, GothamSchools is making it easier for readers to see which kind of content they are viewing.

gothamschools2

Green believes that it is important to make it clear to readers when GothamSchools is reporting a story versus when it has a completed reporting story. For instance, editors may have information from one side of a story (a principal on budget cuts, for instance) and want to get that out there, but editors don’t want readers thinking that’s the whole story.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put a full story out there with information only from one side,” Green said.

In fact, sources became confused by the different kinds of content that GothamSchools offered and some even accused GothamSchools of being “just some rag,” before they realized that GothamSchools offered in-depth content to go along with short blog posts. Editors and writers were having issues with these sources who didn’t understand the difference between a blog post and a fully-reported story. Editors are hoping this new visual design will help sources realize what’s a fully-reported story and what’s a blog post that may contain only one viewpoint.

Green and other editors debated the merits of this change. There were concerns that users would not get the distinction, but so far users and sources have been receptive to the changes. Editors wrote a blog post detailing this change and others that helped users understand what was happening.

The blog posts and stories work hand in hand though. As a story is unfolding, writers and editors will file blog posts with new tidbits, links to what else has been reported, thoughts from insiders and more. After a story settles and has been thoroughly reported, editors will go back and write a complete story that will sum things up for regular readers, while also telling a complete story for casual readers.

“It’s a balance of giving a good first draft of history and with being rigorous,” Green said.

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