Education Opinion

Driven By Data

By Nancy Flanagan — May 07, 2010 4 min read
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In her last year of a degree program in Justice Studies, my daughter took a course called “Surveillance in Society.” The topic: intrusions into personal privacy and data collection made possible by technology. Christine and I had many amusing conversations about her assignments-- “Are Bar Codes the Mark of the Beast? Discuss."--which struck me as paranoid in the extreme. Dr. Crazy, as she called the professor, was obsessed with our imminent national loss of civil liberty, urging his undergrads to be suspicious of anyone asking for personal information. And, presumably, scanning the sky for black helicopters.

Schools generally embrace technology in the following sequence: #1) Making the system more efficient; #2) Enhancing teaching; and #3) Giving students skilled access and control over their own learning. The Race to the Top goals value #1--using data and sophisticated statistical analysis to make teachers more “effective.” Enhancing teaching sometimes gets mentioned as “21st century learning.” And almost nobody--except actual students-- thinks about #3.

Here is a simple story about schools and data collection:

Twelve years ago, my district opened a new middle school, full of state-of-the-art technological systems. We were the envy of the other buildings, with individual computers and networked software to handle all our data needs. We went to trainings conducted by the software vendors, and were told our new procedures would save paper and man-hours, give us more accurate data to analyze and make parent communication easy and impressive. (See #1.)

Under Old Attendance procedures, every teacher took attendance once, recorded it in their grade/attendance book, then sent a student to the office with an attendance form (printed on scrap paper from recycle bins). A secretary recorded these on a master list; record-keeping for students who came and left during the day was handled through the office. Teachers got a copy of the master list, to confirm absences for make-up work.

Under New, Improved Attendance, every teacher had a computer with separate attendance and gradebook functions. We were now required to take attendance every hour, entering absences and tardies within a five-minute window. We weren’t allowed to keep the attendance program open on our desktops because electronic gradebooks might be accessed by devious students, so we had to log in/out every hour.

This being 1998, the server’s horsepower was severely strained by 40 teachers logging in simultaneously; it would take 60 seconds for the program to load. Teachers who forgot to take attendance within 5 minutes would be called by the office, where a secretary now sat monitoring the data coming in every hour-- and disrupting lessons.

A process that had taken two minutes of teacher-time daily suddenly began to take two minutes every hour. Best-case scenario, teachers lost an additional nine minutes of instructional time each day: 45 minutes/week, 3.5 class periods per month, 30+ class periods per school year--or 5 full days of instructional time. Taking attendance.

Think I’m being overdramatic? It’s not about record-keeping, but questioning the automatic goal of “efficiency” and the uses and purposes of data collection that did nothing to inform or illuminate student learning. Which is our job, right?

At a staff meeting, I asked why it was now critical to have hour-by-hour data on attendance. The state requires daily absence records for funding purposes, to ferret out kids who aren’t actually attending school. A student who went AWOL would not be picked up any quicker under the new system--and most of our mid-day leavers were signed out to go to the orthodontist with their moms, anyway.

The new system made data-entry mistakes six times more likely. It kept a secretary busy checking on students who were marked present one hour but absent the other five, due to teacher error. I had sympathy for “careless” teachers who rushed through attendance to get started on actual teaching--only to be monitored and chastised later. I was one of them.

Nobody in the office could explain why or how the new system was helping us do a better job of serving kids. The on-line gradebooks also came with unanticipated problems, making evaluating work, assessing progress and communicating with parents unnecessarily complicated and focused on the wrong things.

Schools invest resources in what they value. We’re taking attendance six times a day because we can--because our exciting new technology made it possible. We collected the data first, and decided how to manage it later, a pattern repeatedly endlessly in thousands of schools.

We assume that everything can be done faster, cheaper and better through technology. Sometimes, the process runs backwards--we adopt the technology, and then invent reasons for why we need it and what it accomplishes. More data doesn’t always clarify the path to better learning or healthier school organizations.

I have not turned into Dr. Crazy. I respect teachers who integrate elegant uses of technology into instruction, who understand the difference between the teacher and the tool. I especially admire teachers who create ways to kick-start deep, self-directed student learning using tech tools.

Data collection made possible by technology values numbers over concrete examples. Often, it serves the system, not the teacher--and not the students.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.