Lessons from a dive into school data

Data is not the story. Data serves the story.

That advice, from Seattle Times investigative reporter Ken Armstrong, may be the most important lesson I will try to take away from a 3 ½-day crash course in data-driven reporting.

The Education Writers Association brought together reporters from all corners of the nation — from New York and Connecticut to Florida, from California to Wyoming and Boise — for its 2014 “Diving Into Data Workshop” at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.

At times, it seemed like a plunge into open and deep and murky waters. After spending hours of crunching numbers and honing spreadsheet skills, we’d break for lunch or a snack, slowly decompressing and gradually regaining our communicative skills. We caught glimpses of a sunny Seattle-area weekend, but our days were pretty much spent submerged in statistics.

When I was accepted for this seminar, I told my Facebook friends that it sounded “sort of like summer math camp for wonky K-12 beat writers.” I meant that in only the nicest way, and it turned out I wasn’t far off.

But I think the concept of “diving” into data is a bit off the mark — at least where it comes to providing numbers that resonate with readers.

We were reminded that many good data-driven stories do not rely on sophisticated statistical analysis — just good old division, addition and subtraction. Associated Press education reporter Donna Blankinship reminded us that data doesn’t need to be stockpiled and deployed in ponderous multi-day reporting projects; it can be the cornerstone of good, short-term enterprise reporting.

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And my group’s writing coach, Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond, showed us how to use tools like Excel to crunch numbers, and how to use the numbers to tell stronger stories. There was no avoiding catching her infectious enthusiasm for the wonders of Excel — remember, I said this was a wonky event. But she also left us spellbound as she walked us through her ambitious project to scour 880,000 state attendance records to weave a startling tale of Oregon’s high absentee rates. Numbers were key to the story. But the stories focused on kids and communities at risk — the people behind those numbers.

For my part, I’m resolved to come back to Idaho and try to use numbers to draw important connections. If I’m doing my job right, I hope I can bring trends to light and bring issues to life.

If you’ve checked out our Idaho Ed Trends data center, you know you can find great and easily readable snapshots about your neighborhood school’s test scores, finances and demographics. (In fact, if you haven’t played around on Ed Trends yet, use this link to go there … like, right away.)

It’s great stuff. And it’s focused at the neighborhood level. What I’d like to do now is take the neighborhood numbers and start looking for statewide patterns. Now that I’ve learned a few Excel tricks, I’m pretty excited about slicing and dicing the numbers, comparing indicators and helping us all look at our schools in a little bit richer context.

I’ve learned that Excel is my friend. Betsy Hammond told me so, emphatically. Who am I to argue?

I hope to be smart about using numbers, not just in big enterprise pieces, but in shorter but still substantial pieces. I’m hoping to drop a quick turnaround piece this week on school supplemental levies — based on some interesting facts I figured out playing on Excel. I hope the piece will add some nuance to the school finance issue, in a quick and accessible way.

I hope, as a reader, you’ll notice. But in a way, I hope you don’t. I hope we can make the numbers digestible, and the storylines clear and compelling.

In other words, I’ll dive into data. And I’ll do my best not to drown you in it.