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Feb. 18, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

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 indirectly 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.”

That dialog, they hope, will be a small but meaningful way to get beyond the statistics — and to help empowerment to win out over resignation. “It’s a process,” Hawbaker says. “You’ve got to deal with things as they are, look at why they are, and then start looking at possible solutions.”

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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