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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Is Data a Dirty Word?

By Peter DeWitt — December 18, 2013 4 min read
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Data is not supposed to hold us down, but help us grow.

We are inundated with data, and I’m not just referring to educators and school leaders. It surrounds us in our everyday lives. We turn on the television to watch the weather report and they provide the temperature, how much snow we will get (if you live somewhere that gets snow), and how many inches we have received over the past few days. Meteorologists even dive deeper into their data and report the snow fall averages for the last few decades. The more ambitious ones plunge into the largest snowfalls on record.

Everywhere we turn we are struck with...data. We have to worry about how much of our data is kept by the government, and parents have to worry about how much of their children’s data is kept by school personnel. It’s nearly impossible to go a day without hearing the word “data.”

Over the past few years, schools have been charged, some may say forced, to keep student data so they can prove student growth and highlight student academic performance. In these days of accountability on steroids it has been important for schools to prove that students are learning. Unfortunately some state education departments, like New York State, charge schools with keeping data, but they don’t share how they come up with the data they keep. Even after giving lengthy high stakes testing to students, the state education department doesn’t share the data of where students did well and where they did not. Recently, Regent Betty Rosa wrote an OpEd in the Albany Times Union about the state education department’s use of data (Read that here).

It’s no wonder why educators, parents and some students hate the word data, and it has turned into a four letter word...and I’m not referring to a very clean one. In Deciding Who Sees Students’ Data (N.Y. Times. 10/13) Natasha Singer provided a great example of the sequence of events that led school districts to look at one database to keep all data. Singer wrote,

Over the years, the Jeffco school system, as it is known, which lies west of Denver, had invested in a couple of dozen student data systems, many of which were incompatible. In fact, there were so many information systems -- for things like contact information, grades and disciplinary data, test scores and curriculum planning for the district's 86,000 students -- that teachers had taken to scribbling the various passwords on sticky notes and posting them, insecurely, around classrooms and teachers' rooms."

This is not just an issue for schools outside of Denver. Many teachers and school leaders had multiple databases they need to keep track of over the years, and many of those educators, me included, wished we could just do some “one stop shopping” so we didn’t have to have an index card with passwords. We wanted a place where we could get all the information we wanted...on just one site.

In walks data collection organizations to help...

Suddenly, educators and school leaders got what they were asking for...which isn’t always a good thing. The hard part for schools is to meet the needs of accountability requirements at the same time we protect children from being numbers. Organizations like inBloom are referred to as non-profits but they do make a profit. They’re a business. Just like any business they want to make money.

What we really need to think about, as educators, is what kind of data we should keep on students, and how that will affect them in the long run. I worry about tracking discipline data because, as an elementary principal, I knew that kids make mistakes and it’s in how I work with them through the mistakes that mattered. I did not need to keep data on children who learn life lessons in different ways. Frequent flyers to the office who bullied other students were a much different story. If interventions were not working we needed to make sure we kept data on them. After all, it’s a requirement of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).

Putting Faces on Data

The biggest issue with data is that, we as the adults closest to them, understand their backgrounds and have seen their growth. Outside agencies selling a product, and some state education department leaders, look at students as a number and not as a face. That’s not the data’s fault. Data is important, but it’s equally as important how we use it.

In Putting Faces on Data by Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan, they write that “It’s not just the sheer volume of information that is daunting. It is the form in which data arrive-can you imagine a devoted teacher becoming excited about the latest eloctronic report that serves up scores of disaggregated statistics?” Sharratt and Fullan go on to quote their colleagues Any Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley by writing “Teachers are data driven to distraction.”

In their book, Sharratt and Fullan ask educators to take a “deliberate pause” and ask the following questions:

  • How useful have your data been?
  • Of all the data available, which are most critical?
  • Which data are missing?
  • Instead of using data, do players at every level “hope for” exceptional instructional practice within the mysterious black box known as the classroom?
  • Give examples from your data that demonstrate you know that every child is learning at his or her maximum potential?

In the End

As we continue to have discussions about data we need to realize it’s not the data’s fault so we shouldn’t hate it. It is what we, as educators or leaders, do with the data that matters. What matters most is that we do not use it against students because they are young and deserve the same opportunities to grow that we all had when we were their age. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and quality data can help us work on those weaknesses and make our strengths...stronger.

However, the darker side of data needs to be discussed, debated and destroyed. In an effort to streamline everything from our searches on the internet to our past mistakes in life, we are creating boxes of information on children at the same time we are trying to help them achieve their maximum growth. Data is not supposed to hold us down, but help us grow.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.