Written by Paige Kupas, MDI Journalism Intern
Before the Edunomics Lab launched its National Education Resource Database on Schools — better known as NERD$ — there was no way for data consumers to see how school districts allocated their spending between individual schools without scouring individual school report cards, and even then the data were not archived for reference from year to year. NERD$, a project the first of its kind, is a collaboration between the Edunomics Lab and the Massive Data Institute (MDI) to collect education finance data that impacts education policy by showing how district policies affect spending on individual schools, examining how spending is or is not related to student outcomes, and helping district leaders understand spending results.
Marguerite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab and MDI Faculty Affiliate, explained that in order to obtain data that went beyond the district level, the first step in creating the NERD$ database was to work with all 50 states as they started to collect and report school-by-school spending data for the first time, as required by the Every Students Success Act, and in doing so built a common reporting framework helping to standardize data. The Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Edunomics Lab grants to create this data repository in partnership with MDI. With this funding, researchers went state by state to grab the data as they became available and standardize them to enable local, regional, and national analysis. After standardizing the states’ data as effectively as possible, the next step for NERD$ was to clean the data in R and Python. Currently, NERD$ has data for all states, as well as the District of Columbia, for 2018 through 2021 and is working on getting finalized data through 2022.
“Edunomics came in with the expertise on school finance. MDI came in with the expertise on large databases with a public interface. That’s where the marrying of the two skill sets came [together],” Roza said, explaining how Edunomics Lab decided to structure the database in a way that made this innovative education finance data publicly available.
NERD$ has already proved incredibly useful for new research on education finance, according to Roza. Soon after the initial NERD$ data was released, a finance and policy conference told Edunomics Lab that ten percent of the proposals they got that year for the conference used the NERD$ database in some capacity. Additionally, the federal government supported an online tool known as the School Spending and Outcome Snapshot, which allows states, districts, and the public to engage with the data.
Edunomics Lab focused its outreach primarily on superintendents, school boards, and principals. While some districts were apprehensive about having their spending analyzed on a deeper level, most were comfortable with financial data transparency and “have used the data to inform how they allocate their dollars,” Roza said.
Another significant consumer of the data have been journalists, who are bringing conversations about education policy to the forefront.
“As soon as they had data, they were writing a lot more about education finance than they were before. This data ends up popping up in their reporting a lot, so our sense is that is helpful,” Roza explained.
As the NERD$ project continues to expand and becomes even more useful for impacting education policy, it is especially interesting to look at the outliers that tell a story about the scope of the education landscape in the United States, which includes schools in religious communities, schools that send its students to community college early, schools in corrections facilities, and more, according to Roza.
“The numbers are the numbers, but the stories are the more vivid piece of this project. We are all used to our neighborhood school, and the numbers show that there is a lot more variation than that,” Roza said.