At CPE, we are data driven. We encourage educators, school leaders and advocates to be data-driven as well. (Indeed, we have a whole website, Data First, which is dedicated to just that. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time to check out.) So while we think an over-abundance of data is a good problem to have, we often remind ourselves and others to take a step back before acting on it, and consider that every data point represents a living, breathing, complex, does-not-fit-the-mold child.
Clearly, good data can lead you to solutions for improving policy and practice in the aggregate. It can also provide insights into particular classrooms or even students. But ultimately what an individual child needs is going to be, well, quirky. We may well find out that Joey struggled with fractions this quarter even though he did well in math the quarter before. If we keep digging, we might also discover that he was absent eight days. But the data won’t tell us why. We won’t even know if the inference that Joey’s fraction trouble was due to his multiple absences is the right one. There could be a million things going on with Joey that only he and his parents can help us understand. But we need to find out before we can effectively intervene.
NPR recently ran a story on Five Doubts About Data-Driven Schools that highlights some of the risks with an absolutist approach to data. I will just address two in this space, but encourage you to read the article itself. It’s short.
One: some critics believe a hyperfocus on data can suppress rather than spark motivation to do better, particularly for low-scoring students. Publishing data that points out differences by individuals or groups can lead to what psychologists call a “stereotype threat.” According to the article, “[M]erely being reminded of one’s group identity, or that a certain test has shown differences in performance between, say, women and men, can be enough to depress outcomes on that test for the affected group.”
I have had my own qualms about the practice in some schools of displaying student test scores, whether of individual students in the classroom or reported by teacher in the school building. There can be great value in having students examine their own data, and helping them use it to take greater charge of their own learning. But there’s also a fine line between encouraging constructive self-examination and reinforcing a potentially destructive perception of failure. Before instituting such a policy or practice, principals and district leaders should think very carefully about the messages being sent versus the messages students, parents and teachers actually hear.
Two: Just because we can collect the data, should it be part of a student’s permanent record? Most would agree that universities and potential employers should have access to student transcripts, grades, test scores and other academic information when making admissions or employment decisions. But, as the article points out, we are entering an era when psychometricians will be able to measure such characteristics as grit, perseverance, teamwork, leadership and others. How confident should we be in this data? And even if it is reliable, should we even consider such data for traits exhibited in childhood and adolescence that are arguably mutable, and therefore may no longer be accurate descriptions of the individual? I have similar concerns about a child’s disciplinary record following him or her into adulthood.
Over and over again, the availability and effective use of education data has been shown to have a tremendous impact on improving performance at the system, school and individual level. Back to Joey and fractions. Had she not looked at his data, Joey’s teacher would not have identified his struggle, and it might have remained hidden only to become worse over time. This way she is able to dig more, ask questions, find out what Joey needs, and ideally, provide extra help so he will succeed.
But we also need to guard against the overuse of data, lest we allow it to reduce all of a student’s intellect, growth, production, and character to a number and lose a picture of the child.