Monday, October 28, 2013

Essential decisions...

The story so far is that the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is refusing to release a University of Chicago survey of school performance around the state.

My FOIA request to them earlier this month was declined on the grounds that the reports I requested were "preliminary" under section 7(1) of FOIA. I wrote to the Attorney General requesting a Request for Review of this decision. The point I raised was that one cannot on the one hand argue that completed analyses, produced by leading education researchers at one of the nation's top universities are "preliminary", while at the same time argue that the disaggregated raw data (that ISBE has said it will release) is a "final" report. Something that is preliminary is an action or event that precedes something full or more important.

I'm looking forward to hearing how the ISBE justifies its decision to withhold the 5 Essentials report from public release. It has seven days to do this, according to the letter I have just received from the office of the Attorney General today which rules that "further inquiry is warranted".

Excepts from the letter:

"We have determined that further inquiry is warranted in this matter. Please provide this office with a detailed explanation of the ISBE's legal and factual basis for asserting the section 7(1) exemption to deny Ms Loder's October 9, 2013 FOIA request, together with an un-redacted copy of the withheld records. In your response, please confirm whether ISBE has provided parts of the requested records to Ms Loder as indicated in Ms Loder's Request for Review. If so, the ISBE's response should also include a detailed legal and factual explanation of its basis for withholding the analysis and/or interpretation portions of the requested survey reports. 

As required under FOIA, please provide this information to our office within seven (7) business days after receipt of this letter (5 ILCS 140/9.5(c) (West 2012). In the context of a Request for Review, the issue is whether the public body has proved by clear and convincing evidence [their emphasis] that its reasons for denying information or records were proper".

Friday, October 18, 2013

Class dismissed

So there is a big fuss here in Illinois about a report the state commissioned from the University of Chicago at a cost of $600,000. The fuss is not about the results of the survey, but the fact that the Department of Education has simply decided not to release them.

A survey was conducted of more than one million parents, teachers and students. Most teachers completed them. The goal was to record metrics that are indicators for which schools are working, and which are not. For example, everyone is asked how well their schools and leaders perform. The researchers at the University of Chicago have proof that the metrics they are using an indicate which schools are doing well and which are at risk of failure.

Two reports were produced by the University, one benchmarked the results against data from Chicago Public Schools, the other against state data. Neither have been released. It has been reported by the Chicago Tribune that because some of the results were downright awful the State Department of Education (DOE) decided not to release them at all.  The Chicago Tribune has also written eloquently about why the reports must be released in: "You can't be trusted".

Instead, I understand the DOE is going to release the raw data: the survey questions and answers. This is wiithout the benefit of any analysis or interpretation. Removing the context for the data will thus render it impossible for one school to be judged against any other—the purpose of the original survey. This means that it is no longer possible to uncover in the data any sense of whether one school is doing any better or worse than any other which is important public information.

I wrote to the DOE on October 9th, asking it to release the 5essentials survey under FOIA rules. They declined yesterday stating they were preliminary reports and are being: withheld pursuant to 5 ILCS 140/7 (1) (f) as “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.”.

The point I have made to the Attorney General in my request for a review of this decision is that one cannot on the one hand argue that completed analyses produced by leading education researchers at one of the nation’s top universities are “preliminary”, while at the same time argue that a disaggregated list of their raw data is a “final” report. Something that is “preliminary” is an action or event that precedes something full or more important.

It is fairly clear that what is happening here that the information content of the original report is being degraded because DOE are uncomfortable with the findings of The 5 Essentials Survey. To claim that disaggregated data from the research is somehow a “final” report is a grave attempt to flout the intent and meaning of FOIA law. Open and honest government remains the cornerstone of American democracy through the free exchange of information. In a letter to the Chicago Tribune, Mimi Rodman, executive director of Stand for Children, says the state is holding important data they will not share with students and parents.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Recently published...

Across the divide

Purple heart 

Lessons from Iowa’s Terry Branstad on how to run a divided state Oct 19th 2013 | DES MOINES | From the print edition 

BACK in 2009, when Terry Branstad was president of Des Moines University in Iowa, he found himself increasingly unhappy with the way his state was being run. He knew a thing or two about it: as governor between 1983 and 1999, he had steered Iowa through the farm crisis and on to a prosperous economy with a 2.6% unemployment rate. But with a comfortable university perch and a solid legacy as a public servant, politics did not beckon. That was until two law students started a Facebook campaign to draft him to run for governor again. When about 10,000 young people had joined, Mr Branstad knew he had to do something. He resigned as president that October, and in little more than a year was being sworn in for his fifth term. 

What makes Mr Branstad more remarkable is that he governs one of the most politically divided states. He is, argues Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, the most successful and pragmatic politician in the United States. Hyperbole, perhaps; but Mr Branstad is already America’s second-longest-serving governor, and he is likely to be re-elected next year. [More...]

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Recently published...

Higher education 

Learned Luddites 

Many professors are hostile to online education Oct 12th 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition 

SOME people hope that the internet will revolutionise higher education, making it cheaper and more accessible to the masses. Others fear the prospect. Some academics worry that they will be sacked and replaced by videos of their more photogenic colleagues. Others argue that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are nowhere near as good as a class taught face-to-face.

 Earlier this year academics at Amherst, a liberal-arts college, decided not to offer MOOCs. Professors in the philosophy department at San José State University wrote a letter of complaint because they were encouraged to use a popular online Harvard course, “JusticeX”, as part of their own curriculum. Even at Harvard, which has invested $30m in MOOCs, much of the faculty is prickly. In May 58 professors wrote to the dean of arts and sciences to demand greater oversight of MOOCs. [More...]

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Your reading list, schools briefings revisited and Brazil

Many years ago The Economist did a series of schools briefings which aimed to explain banking and finance in everyday terms. When I started my job at the Economist in 2000 my father photocopied the set and gave it to me to read. (I was a science writer and knew little about economics.) Over the years I'd nagged at various people internally "why can't we do a schools briefing again?". Finally, they have.

In a special section explaining the new briefing (when on earth did we start explaining things to our readers?), an author helpfully writes:

"This series of schools briefs revives The Economist’s occasional primers on topical subjects. The first series (published in 1975, on "Managing the British Economy") was intended to help British economics students prepare for school leaving exams, though we hoped it would also be of wider use. Subsequent subjects ranged widely, from American government to science. We last published a schools brief in 1999. It was on finance, and concluded: "Some of the new financial technologies are, in effect, efforts to bottle up considerable uncertainties. If they work, the world economy will be more stable. If not, an economic disaster might ensue."

These briefings, as well as a new briefing on Brazil written by my colleague Helen Joyce, are well worth downloading for a quiet read at the end of the day. I recommend Pocket for this. 

The origins of the financial crisis, The Economist.