Data Weary

In the past few weeks, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about data here in the overly-large school district. Actually, all the data-this and data-that discussions have been ongoing for a long time, although it really seems to get annoying enough to write about around this time in the school year.

The fundamental concept, of course, is that if we collect enough data on students, we can manipulate it and unlock the secret to bumping up their test scores so that the school won’t get toss into the dreaded “needs improvement” (aka failing) category. In the end, the data is really all about keeping schools and districts out of the local papers, and only marginally about student learning.

Our administration talks a good game about “21st century skills”, the 4Cs (communications, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking), higher level thinking, and all the rest. But the reality of what actually happens in schools is all focused on the annual rounds of standardized tests: practice, remediation, and an over-emphasis on a very narrow band of topics and skills.

Of course, we are not the only education organization wallowing in the healing magic of numbers. It’s happening at all levels.

Last week, right up the road in DC, an organization with big time support from Bill Gates called the Data Quality Campaign sponsored something called the National Data Summit. A centerpiece of this event was a panel discussion featuring two of the major national advocates for gathering more data (aka more testing), Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former head of the DC public schools, Michelle Rhee. Both have failed to produce evidence that this approach actually improves learning but that hasn’t stopped them from pushing it anyway.

As you might expect, missing from the agenda of this meeting, and pretty much any other high profile education reform event, were the voices of teachers, or anyone currently working in schools with actual students.

In fact, one retired DC math teacher who registered and attended the National Data Summit was thrown out of the hotel for providing a counter argument to the theme of the day. This in spite of the fact he offered to stop distributing a leaflet discussing “data quality and information about some of the speakers” when approached by security.

Ok, so I understand that this was the Data Quality Campaign’s dog and pony show, not a debate, although ejecting someone for providing an counter opinion does seem rather harsh.

However, this little scenario illustrates the point that many of our national “leaders” don’t really want to hear opposing voices or, heaven forbid, evidence that in anyway challenges their assumptions on how to improve American education. They are convinced that standardized testing (along with charter schools, merit pay, eliminating teacher tenure, and the rest) is the solution, with little or no proof that all this extra data is either valid or useful.

Indeed, based simply on my observations, collecting more data and wallowing in the analysis of it, is making things worse. It swallows up valuable teaching time and bores the kids. And too many people are accepting the numbers without questioning whether they are valid in the first place.

But the worst consequence of our data driven obsession is that it validates the status quo, locking in place our 1950′s model of school, along with the only-slightly-changed curriculum from the same era.

And as a result, it obscures the need to have a serious discussion about how to change (I say radically alter) that model so we can help kids acquire the knowledge and skills they will actually need when they finish their time in school.

Now, in that hypothetical 21st century everyone talks about.

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