What To Do When The Expert Is Also An Advocate

Jeanne Marie Olson (right) in a 2013 WTTW Chicago Public Television segment.

Last week before the Memorial Day weekend break, the Columbia Journalism Review (for whom I have written a few pieces) produced a story about Jeanne Marie Olson, a Chicago public schools parent, advocate, and data geek who’s been enormously influential in the seemingly never-ending debate over school budgets and closings in Chicago.

Written by contributor Jackie Spinner, the piece (How one open data advocate is influencing the discussion about Chicago Public Schools) describes Olson’s role, quotes education reporters who’ve used her work, and cites instances where she’s even broken news: “Her detailed, open-source data mapping of the Chicago school system has certainly caught the attention of the city’s education reporters,” writes Spinner.

Evidence of Olson’s influence isn’t hard to come by. And by all accounts her work is accurate and timely. But the CJR piece raises are two important questions:

*Does it accurately depict Olson’s function as an open-data expert, or is she really operating as a skilled advocate for one particular argument or “side” of the education debate?

*What if any concerns come up around education journalists making frequent use of data from a single source of information, rather than doing their own work or relying on a variety of sources?

As you’ll see, in the end the main issue at play here is how explicit Spinner should have been in letting readers know the policy preferences of the person being profiled. But there are also broader issues about how journalists come to rely on and work with expert/advocates. 

Just to be clear: No one contacted for this column has any questions about Olson’s integrity or focus on open data.

“She is a strong parent advocate, very knowledgeable about K-12 issues, and one of the leading experts when it comes to using open data and social media,” said an insider who didn’t want to be named.  “She seems independent-minded.”

According to Olson, most of her time is spent solo parenting and doing unpaid work for a nonprofit (Roots Ethiopia). Her husband is on a book tour. She’s not taking corporate work. “I’m not backed by anyone and I don’t get paid.”

Her education work is carefully vetted by reporters before they use it, she says. “Most journalists are very skeptical of my role in the journalism constellation… “I know that they take [the data she provides] with a grain of salt… Then they decide for themselves whether to use it or not and, if so, how.”

There are obvious reasons that reporters would want to make use of someone like Olson: “Rahm’s open-data strategy is to hand out the spreadsheets knowing full well no one at the papers has the time or expertise to make sense out of them,” said longtime Chicago education reporter Maureen Kelleher. “It really speaks to the lack of resources on data in newspapers that the open data advocates are becoming the go-tos… Journalists are dying for support with data and someone who is data-savvy and responsive, with a clearly-stated p.o.v., is certainly a great source for reporters.”

However, the self-reported reflections of journalists who rely in part on Spinner’s work (and may or may not share some of her biases or have time to vet her findings) aren’t as corroborative or compelling as Spinner may believe. [I did not re-interview the reporters cited in the CJR piece to find out about their vetting practices.]

Data is only neutral if it’s presented in a comprehensive, balanced way. Otherwise, it’s just evidence being used to make a case. Views from independent experts – academics, colleagues, counterparts — would do better in this situation. 

The CJR piece also leaves out that Olson’s role has primarily been helping advocates who are opposed to the budget cuts and school closings that have been proposed by the school district, and that she’s part of a group that’s affiliated with the Chicago Teachers Union called Raise Your Hand (RYH).

In fact, it’s not at all clear what her views are from the piece, though they seem obvious to anyone involved in Chicago schools and Olson is forthright about them. 

On her “about” page, Olson states outright that she’s a member of RYH and generally agrees with their work: “I think they have provided a reasonable, balanced perspective about public education in Chicago during the chaotic storm of press releases and marketing over the past many months.”

“Raise Your Hand is a growing coalition of Chicago public school parents and organizations associated with or advocating for public education,” according to its Twitter page. It’s also reported to have received funding from the Chicago Teachers Union.

According to Olson, her biases are clear, public, and thus less likely to be an issue: “I have biases. I believe the research on smaller class sizes…that is a bias. I believe in desegregation…that is a bias. I believe that there are espoused theories and theories in use in CPS, and sometimes Central Office doesn’t examine the theories in use. That’s a bias. I’m willing to disclose my biases and publish data anyway.”

In general, Olson has opposed CPS proposals. However, there are apparently instances in which she’s disagree with other advocates and the teachers union that were not mentioned in the CJR piece.

She recalls a moment when a colleague asked her if the work they were doing would help make the case to close schools. She says she responded that if the data showed that it would be better if the school was closed, so be it. “The CTU and some parents didn’t like that, but that is not my problem.”

“The District’s footprint was too large given the decline in the student population and I said it needed to shrink,” she says, citing a local public TV news segment. “I’m sure RYH and the CTU and many parents weren’t happy about that. But that is what the data showed.” 

“Some of the work I do supports [CTU] positions, some of it doesn’t. She says she thinks CTU should have taken the last contract offer, and that some charters are amazing.  “I tend to give them plenty of space because what they are doing does not influence the day-to-day experience in schools to the degree that CPS policy decisions do.”

According to Spinner, Olson “noted that some schools should be closed because enrollment was low. It’s just that she argued the formula CPS was using for identifying schools was flawed.”

So in the end, Olson’s conclusions might be more nuanced than some of those who use her work, even if this isn’t something that’s included in the CJR piece about her. 

Even then, however, she may still function more as an advocate than an expert, according to some observers:

“The missing piece in her work is a financially viable alternative solution,” says Marguerit Roza, who has done some work with Chicago schools on budget issues. Olson “doesn’t generally propose a spending plan that would work given the larger district financial constraints.  For this reason, she is operating more like an advocate, than to come up with solutions to district problems.”

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.