The Rising Tide of Data

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While I was attending a few teacher professional-development seminars recently, a long-fermenting thought of mine came more clearly into focus: Educators may be overinvesting in data and data collection. Many propose that we base most, if not all, of our classroom decisions on the corroboration of data. This, in and of itself, is a seemingly common-sense thing to do, but if implemented to the extreme and without proper forethought, such thinking may do as much harm as good.

As educators, we are drilled from our earliest credentialing-program class that we need to be agents of change. This concentration on continual change, while beneficial, unfortunately makes us more susceptible to fads and pendulum shifts. I fear that data collection is our newest fad. I worry that if it's universally adopted without a clear understanding of the effort required for implementation or the end goal, we could, in fact, harm the students whose education we are so valiantly trying to improve.

We need to have conversations about the reason for the data collection. It cannot be enough to simply collect numbers. There must be a well-defined purpose in mind. Are we trying to identify ways to improve test scores, or do we have a larger objective? Are we seeking to address specific behavioral deficiencies or just on a fishing expedition to illuminate problems?

I believe that a lack of forethought plagues the data-driven movement. At my school, teachers are required to create self-directed data-driven goals. They must identify a professional deficiency, formulate a plan to address it, and decide upon an effective data-collection method to chart their progress. In essence, they need to know where they want to go and how to get there. This is the most effective way to use data, since there is a continuous cost-benefit analysis attached to the process. I am not so sure we are performing the same due diligence when it comes to our students.

"Are we trying to identify ways to improve test scores, or do we have a larger objective?"

Programs that compile and organize a multitude of student data points are out there, but we should be asking if the information we collect has a purpose. Is the energy expended in collecting and analyzing that data really worth it? Say an average history teacher notices that her students scored poorly on the French Revolution section of their state standardized test. Given this information, what is she to do? The most common answer is that the teacher could re-evaluate her instructional method of that particular unit and redesign her lessons to convey the subject more effectively, increase information retention, and, hopefully, raise test scores. This seems like a fairly straightforward answer, but I would argue that there is a more important question to ask: What is the true benefit of addressing that specific instructional deficiency? By revamping her method of teaching that unit, those test scores should rise, but at what unintended cost?

Given the reality that teachers are required to go over such a vast amount of information every year, education becomes a zero-sum game, in which the addition of something to the curriculum necessitates a subtraction of something else. For that history teacher to address the French Revolution problem, should she then have to give up one of her favorite units—the one she and the kids love—decreasing her job satisfaction and overall student engagement? Does the very structure of the class have to be modified, thereby draining a sense of the joy of learning from her students? Granted, one instructional deficiency is not a huge deal, but if every teacher is analyzing his or her curriculum on the micro level, does this mask the true longitudinal, macro effects?

These are questions brought up by countless others before me, but questions now increasingly being relegated to the sidelines. Instead, they should be at the forefront as individual schools decide how they collect and use different pieces of data. Whenever we collect data, be it standardized-test scores or results of benchmark exams, there should be a cost-benefit analysis in our classrooms. As educators, we should ask ourselves: Does the time and energy put into data collection and analysis actually translate into desired outcomes? Does such data truly help us improve students' education and longitudinal progress? Data is useful, to be sure, but it is not necessarily the answer to providing a high-quality education to our students. Educational decisionmaking involves much more than a numerical analysis to identify deficiencies.

Think about the the world beyond education: The entertainment industry uses focus groups and other means to collect a mountain of data to determine whether a certain campaign, song, or film has what it takes. In fact, data can often drive artistic decisions. And yet, I bet you can recall more than a couple of films or pop songs produced in the last decade that were "done by the numbers" but were commercial and critical flops. When data drives too many decisions, the soul of the enterprise is robbed, and the whole project falters. Politicians who try to make political calculations in order to appeal to many competing constituencies suffer as well. After a time, they promise so much to so many that instead of focusing on the majority, they are mired in discontent from all sides where precious few are served.

As educators, we need to acknowledge that numbers should be a guide, not the sole determinant in our classrooms. We must not forget that teaching is an art as much as it is a science.

Vol. 31, Issue 23, Pages 28-29

Published in Print: March 7, 2012, as The Rising Tide of Data
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