Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Education Opinion

The Deal With Data: No Silver Bullet

By Ilana Garon — April 09, 2014 3 min read

In the New York City Department of Education, each school falls under the stewardship of a certain “network,” whose job is ostensibly to provide professional development, coordinate operations, coach administrators on the implementation of school policies, and generally “support” a small cohort of schools. Like many teachers, I have some questions about the efficacy of the networks as far as achieving any of these goals (though I may get struck by lightning for writing this in a public forum), especially given how unimpressed I’ve been with much of the professional development that they’ve facilitated; how inconvenienced I’ve been by some of their initiatives (like constantly having teachers redo their curriculum maps in different formats); and how confused I’ve been by some of their vague “mission/philosophy” statements. I had occasion to peruse these mission statements again tonight, while looking to see what role “data” play in the networks’ daily operations.*

As it turns out, everyone likes data--almost every network’s mission or area-of-expertise seems to involve “data analysis,” “data-driven instructional plans,” or providing “Data Specialists” as part of its support package for the schools within its vassalage. Mentioning the buzzword “data” immediately lends an air of legitimacy, scientific precision, and unassailable accuracy.

Apparently, this is not only true in the world of education--flaunting “data” is quite in vogue right now, as this article from this weekend’s New York Times attests. “By combining the power of modern computing with the plentiful data of the digital era, it promises to solve virtually any problem--crime, public health, the evolution of grammar, the perils of dating--just by crunching the numbers,” explain the article’s authors--or so believe, they explain, champions of “Big Data.” Within education, any number of current reform movements hold that their initiatives are backed by “data.” This leads to categorical mandates about everything from technology use, to teacher training, to instruction: such-and-such must be taught THIS way to correlate with the latest “data"--usually garnered from students’ standardized tests scores.

I maintain that there are practical applications for data in most industries, including education. However, as the authors of the Times article point out, Big Data are an imperfect means of gathering information: Results are subject to far too much correlation-causation confusion, are often insufficiently robust to be viewed as categorically accurate, can be intentionally “gamed” (particularly by those in industries that have a bottom line riding on these results...ahem, test-making companies), and offer scientific-seeming solutions to questions that require much deeper inquiry.

I find this last point to be especially true when viewing instructional mandates through the lens of “data,” as the various networks seem keen that all their teachers do. (“Everything we do is supported by data,” was the motto of a network to which my school used to belong; this was on the bottom of all its letterhead.) What will make for good teaching is, in many ways, far too nuanced to be predictable or quantifiable by “data.” Rather, it relies on the “chemistry” of the students and teachers who are in the classroom together: their interests, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, good teaching relies on passion on the part of the teacher, and engagement on the part of the kids. None of that is measurable in a quantitative way. Data obtained through diagnostic exercises can be used to inform decisions about content or level of material; they are less good for categorical judgments about instructional techniques, assessment of students’ mastery of material, or evaluations of teachers (you knew I’d sneak that in there, didn’t you). Hopefully the networks will take note of this...and maybe everyone else, too.

* - Note that I am using the word “data” as a plural noun, which is in fact correct, even though it sounds a bit strange.

The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective 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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Special Education Teachers
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read