This weekend I was working on a proposal that requires California education data. The California Department of Education has a decent data engine at the aptly-named DataQuest, so I was able to look the data up—but the data didn’t really make sense. One school in the target area, for example, had 30,700 students listed as attending. As anyone who has attended or seen an American high school knows, that number is absurd. Other data seemed off too, but I wasn’t sure what to do, so I included it as listed by the website and moved on with the rest of the proposal.
This morning, Isaac was editing the draft and noticed the dubious data, so he decided to call LAUSD’s data department. A “Data Specialist” picked up the phone and lived up to his title as he explained what’s up. The school with 30,700 students is a “continuation” school and the state data is a catch-all for all LAUSD continuation students. Moreover, the Data Specialist explained that California has odd dropout rate rules, such that it’s hard to actually, really, officially drop out; instead, the school of last attendance reports that a student has stopped attending, but that student can stay on the books until the student is as old as 21.
Some California districts also have a complex patchwork of rules and regulations regarding which kids go to which schools. Charters and magnets further complicate calculating accurate dropout rate information.
The Data Specialist ultimately directed us to better, more accurate data, which we included in the proposal. And now we know the details of California’s system, thanks to the call Isaac made. Without that call, we wouldn’t have had quite the right data for the schools. What I originally found would’ve worked okay, but it wouldn’t have been as detailed or accurate.
In short, online data systems are not as good as many people (and RFPs) assume. If you get data that doesn’t seem to make sense, you need to run a sanity check on that data, just like you should with Waze. Don’t die by GPS.
By the way: When you get helpful bureaucrats, be nice to them. We’ve written about the many bad bureaucrats you’ll encounter as a grant writer (“FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats” is one example). But the bureaucrats who do the right thing are too rare, and, when you find them, thank them. Many actually know a lot but almost never find anyone who wants to know what they know, and they can be grateful just to find an audience.
The right phone call can also reveal information beyond the purpose of the call itself. In this case, we learned that no one has a clue as to what’s really going on with dropout rates in California. Finding charter school graduation rate data is hard. The guy Isaac talked to said that there’s some data on charters somewhere on the state’s education website, but he didn’t know where. If he, as a LAUSD Data Specialist, doesn’t know and he works on this stuff all day, we’re not likely to. Charter schools aren’t important for the assignment we’re working on, but they may be important for the next one, so that bit of inside information is useful.
EDIT: Jennifer Bergeron adds, “Be prepared when you call. The Data Specialist in our district strikes back with a barrage of questions that I hadn’t even considered each time I call. He’s helpful because his questions often make me think more specifically than I would have on my own.”