I am was a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Parent for seven years. Before I became a parent 10 15 years ago, I had accrued 15+ years of research and consulting experience.

I started this project because I was tired of just gritting my teeth every year when the CPS Elementary School Rankings from Chicago Magazine or the Sun Times were released each year. Both publications are very fine publications, but the shallow pass that they give to school rankings has always bothered me. (I’m not alone in this, by the way.)

I like multidisciplinary collaboration, I like social media, I like education, and I like analyzing organizational systems and do it for a living. I use all of these interests to collaborate with others for improving understanding and creating social change.

I also like data.  As a researcher/consultant/designer, I work more often with qualitative data than I do with quantitative data. I am not an educational policy maker, nor am I aspiring to be. I do aspire to helping others engage with the data and what it can tell us about our schools, our communities, our priorities, and our kids. And brainstorm with others about what we can do as regular parents to support teachers and students and learning in the context of public education.

I stumbled across Illinois Raise Your Hand in 2011 and I think they do some outstanding, unbiased work on advocating for CPS parents and students within the CPS District. They have provided a reasonable, balanced perspective about public education in Chicago during the chaotic storm of press releases and marketing. They have created a space for parents to talk, ask questions, and disagree without being disagreeable. As a parent, I value that because I haven’t felt like I’ve had any voice at the District level at all. (Shout out to IRYH! Thanks for going to all of those CPS Board Meetings so I haven’t had to.)

(The team at the previous IL Raise Your Hand is now at a group called Illinois Families for Public Schools, which is doing amazing work on behalf of Illinois public school students.)

However, the work I do on CPSApples2Apples is for everyone. Anyone is welcome to take and use the data as they need it.  We don’t own the data.  This data is from CPS, City of Chicago, ISBE, ICNS, and any other organizations that are accountable for it. We extract the data from unfriendly formats (like PDFs) and merge it. Make it public. Sometimes analyze or visualize it. We also do basic field research to compare the numbers on the spreadsheets to real life in order to better understand the numbers.

As of the Summer of 2013, this project had grown beyond a one-time data project. Other groups become involved, including but not limited to folks at the Chicago Hack Night and Data Potlucks from 1871, members of other localized community organizations, teachers, principals, administrators, charter and non-charter school representatives, and so on. However, the mission of the original data project remained the same. To get as much data opened and into the public space about Chicago Public Schools as we possibly can to benefit CPS parents and students.

This project is still unfolding…and I’m open to ideas. Drop me a line if you have some.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

1: Come on, who is paying you? You have an anti-charter/anti-union/anti-something agenda, don’t you?

I can assure you that I am not getting paid by anyone for this project. I imagine my family wishes I WAS getting paid, or my kids wish I would at least do less work on my laptop. I’m not a hired gun, and I really want to know what is behind all of the conflicting information about schools within CPS, and I want to see the school system in better shape for all of Chicago’s kids. Also, I’m a bit masochistic.

2: Where do your kids go to school? 

My husband and I have two children under the age of 8 9 11 16. Both attended our neighborhood school (75%+ low income, pretty racially/multiculturally diverse/under-resourced school on the north side of Chicago. Less crime in our neighborhood than many neighborhoods, which is a big advantage, I know.) Our eldest did attend a magnet school for kindergarten, and both attended a private Montessori preschool.  We are a transracial family through adoption (our second child has only been home for 7 months as of this writing  since March 2012). We moved to another diverse district in 2018, adjacent to Chicago, but we are no longer in CPS.

3: What is so terrible about the Chicago Mag and Sun-Times rankings?

The rankings aren’t terrible, but they aren’t very useful either. Essentially, they tell you which schools have children in them who test well. And, even if you value standardized testing, they don’t tell you which schools are working very hard to help children test well. The same schools are always at the top of the lists without explanation or weighting–the schools that only admit students who pass certain achievement or giftedness tests. And many of the other schools at the top of the list have very small populations of low-income students, far below the CPS average. So the schools which have better ISAT PARCC composite scores have lower populations of poor or special education students, and/or require students to test in? You don’t say! Nothing surprising there. So their rankings aren’t terrible. Just terribly misleading.

I naively began this project with only one goal in mind: to create a list of the top “take any student, any time” neighborhood schools in Chicago. Obviously, I began finding more and more interesting data, and things got out of hand. So here we are.

4: Why don’t you just publish your entire database?

I used to publish data as I completed it in Google Drive, and then on Google Fusion, and then Google Fusion shut down (boo) and so we’re back to Google Drive. It’s free and available for anyone. It’s still not complete as of October 14 (2012) August 2013 January 2014  May 2016 February 2021, and though I had worked many free hours on it (see: Children/Husband, Day Job), various other organizations and news outlets ramped up their open data offerings, so I didn’t have to do as much anymore. As a database full of uninterpreted numbers, it also doesn’t tell the average parent very much. But I’ve reposted the original files that were downloaded from Google Fusion before Google took them offline. I’m so glad that other curious parents/ journalists/ academics still use those files–and more recent data– to figure out exactly what the data MEANS. And what we can even do to create positive change.

5: Where are you getting your data?

Anyone with enough insanity/time/stubbornness could do what I’m doing. The current set of data is publicly available in many different places on the CPS and Illinois Board of Education websites (sometimes a few levels down and difficult to find). Unfortunately, a lot of it is contained in PDF’s (shakes fist at CPS), or in an interactive interface that can’t easily be exported, or–when I get lucky and it IS in spreadsheets–the labels on everything aren’t uniform and there are problems with matching up with other different collections of the data. I thought about contacting CPS to inquire as to whether the data could be released in better formats, but I began this project mere weeks before the strike and, when it began to expand,  I figured they were busy. This project is a time killer and a crazy data puzzle, but it’s do-able. Luckily, talented programmers like Manuel Aristan (Tabula), the team at NU’s Knight Lab (Visualization Tools), and the folks at DataMade keep creating amazing data tools that help us to get this work done efficiently. We’ve created a list of the types of tools we use here and anyone can use these tools.

6: What kinds of data are you collecting?

Whatever I can get my hands on that looks significant or interesting, using what I know about the variables that affect educational outcomes to prioritize what I tackle first. Here’s a (old) list. Feel free to suggest additional data categories and sources. I can’t promise that I’ll include them, but you never know.

7: Which schools are included?

I started this project before the CPS 2012 Strike or the 2012-2013 School Actions (proposed closings).  At that point, I was only examining a subset of Elementary Schools (see below).

Since then, with Josh Kalov added to the team. we’ve expanded our data sets to all CPS elementary schools and sometimes we also have CPS high school data available.  A few of our data sets include historical data on schools since 1999, some of which are now closed or re-named.

8. What was included in the initial Apples 2 Apples CPS Elementary Data Set 2012?

Here is the list. Originally, I tried to include every CPS Elementary school which met the criteria that I ended up establishing to create some kind of consistency:

  • Elementary schools of any admissions or governance type within the CPS District
  • Not including now-closed schools; special or alternative schools; or high schools.
  • Must contain all of the following grades in their composite data: 3rd, 4th, 5th
  • Cannot contain any of the following grades in their composite data: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th.

Since then, I’ve expanded the data set to include high schools, closed schools, special or alternative schools IF I HAVE THE DATA. The data and formulas for charter, contract and alternative schools is notoriously difficult to find.

9: I found a mistake in your data/explanation/illustration/spelling.

Awesome, thank you. Please let me know. The purpose of this blog and the database is to get comprehensive data in front of more parents and Chicago residents and folks who don’t have time to chase this information down themselves. It’s also to get clarification on what the data is and what it MEANS. Please, let me know in the comments what I can do to correct data, misconceptions, spelling, and so on.  Or just drop me a line if you’d rather not comment.

10: What are your thoughts on charter schools?**

I’m aware of a few (seemingly) good charters in Chicago. I am not anti-charter school as long as the charter is really accomplishing everything that a neighborhood public school does and more, for less cost than a comparable public school. This would include:

  • Admitting any student at any time of the year who qualifies to enroll (lives in area/boundaries).
  • Publishes all of the same data that a neighborhood school is required to, including teacher salaries and all financial reports, since charter schools are partially funded with tax dollars.
  • Pays teachers as the highly trained professionals that they are, and does not allow non-highly qualified teachers to teach in the classroom.
  • Are held accountable with the same performance policies that non-charters are held to for probationary status and potential closure.
  • Cannot fire teachers for frivolous reasons, such as: marriage status, sexual orientation, political views, etc. And have holistic measures of measuring teacher performance that takes into consideration teacher constraints inherent in the student population and school community.
  • Cannot expel or “counsel out” students who are under-performing academically as long as they are in attendance and not truant.
  • Cannot expel or “counsel out” students who need special education support.

As long as charter schools do all that, and still outperform non-charters? I have to say that I think I’d be cool with charter schools. I haven’t seen universal evidence for the first four points in Chicago, so forgive me if I seem overly curious about the (scanty) data around charters. I’m more interested in reality than marketing, so I’m definitely interested in more data about charters.

**Remember, you asked me this question. I have friends and colleagues who would differ from me–in both directions–regarding their opinions re: charter schools.

11: Why are you calling this the Apples to Apples project?

It had to be called something. I didn’t start out gathering this much data. I began to try and create my own list of top schools that weren’t test-in (SEES) schools or schools with high-income student populations.  Then, it snowballed.  When everyone was asking me why I was leaving out the SEES schools from the rankings, I tried to explain and kept using the phrase “comparing apples to apples.”  It stuck.

11: What do you think you are going to find in all this data?

I don’t know if I will find everything here, but I’m curious about many things. I wrote about some of them here to start.  What are you curious about? Tell me in the comments.

12: Are you going to do this type of data project with CPS high schools? Middle schools? Next year too?

Let’s just see how the Elementary School project goes. I’d love to do this for all CPS schools every year. But remember, this is unpaid, I’m one person, I have a real job, a family with kids and a husband, etc.

At this time, most of my educational data work occurs overseas for a very worthy NGO which is trying to improve the educational experience for students in Southern Ethiopia.

13: Do you need help doing data entry or data clean-up or anything else to do with getting this database completed?

Are you a paid employee or professional volunteer with any charter/testing/union/for-profit educational organization? No offense, but I’d like to keep this as separate from these organizations as possible.  But have a great day!

Are you an experienced and reliable spreadsheet jockey/data entry nerd who wants to help plug numbers into the correct little boxes for no pay and relatively little glory, except for the fun and/or social good of it all? Yes? We can talk.

Are you an experienced researcher in the fields of education, sociology, economics, and/or a related field of practice who wants to lend us the benefit of your learned interpretation of some of this data? Drop me a line.

Are you an experienced infographics designer who lives to make the complex more understandable, interactive and (dare I say it) even entertaining? We should chat.

The best time and place to offer to help the team is to attend one of the Open Gov Hack or Data Potluck nights  run by Open City Chicago.  Josh Kalov and many other great Chicago data/coding folks or myself can usually be found there.  It is more difficult and time-consuming to meet each interested volunteer individually, unfortunately, and since this is an unpaid project, we try to work as efficiently as possible.

Contact: Jeanne Marie Olson jeannemarie.olson (at) gmail (dot) com

If I don’t get back to you that very same day, never fear. I have a real job and a busy family, but I will get back to you soon.

In the meantime, go make a donation to Illinois Families for Public Schools so they can keep doing the great work that they are doing, spending countless hours attending meetings, knocking on doors, analyzing other documents/data, and educating parents about how they can get connected to the work of improving public education in Chicago for all of our kids.

We aren’t part of the Raise Your Hand Board and we do not take direction from them, though we offer our data to them and all CPS parents in a good-faith partnership, and respect the hard and arduous work that they do to advocate for all CPS families.

And go watch the documentary, American Teacher, produced by the insanely awesome (insane and awesome?) Dave Eggers, bestselling author and champion of literacy education and Nínive Calegari, former teacher and co-founder of 826 National. Very insightful film.

One thought on “History of This Project

  1. Pingback: Where did 100,000 empty CPS seats come from? Part 2 | Apples 2 Apples in Chicago Public Schools

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