Data Driving off the Cliffs of Insanity

Data-driven education derives from the growing need for assessment and accountability. Forgetting the irony that as state and local governments provide less and less money per student they ask for more and more data, at some point we need to recognize that data can’t drive education.

That’s not to say we can’t collect some information. It’s useful to know that we spend X amount per student, but data and statistics are largely snapshots of a particular moment in time and rarely show anything more than correlation. For instance, we can correlate economic background to test score but we can’t show a definitive causal relationship simply because everyone reading this post knows at least one person who overcame difficult financial circumstances to succeed in school.

More importantly, all educational data shows us is the result measured against an arbitrarily decided target. Yes, we can measure if a student can identify a quote or perform an function but no one really thinks that is the pinnacle of educational achievement. Instead: define critical thinking. (No cheating.) If you do cheat and go look at the definition (synthesizing, analyzing, evaluating, conceptualizing, and reflecting), next tell me how you can measure those in a standardized way. Once you do such a thing, write a book and become a millionaire. However, even if you can create the perfect rubric, how do you get students to learn?

And that’s the problem with data-driven education: it doesn’t tell us whether the approach actually worked because we can’t truly measure all the factors that impact cognition. Dean Taylor over at Helium does a really nice job of breaking down “Factors that affect student learning.” Taylor’s blog pretty much sums up what just about anyone who teaches knows: The moment of cognition occurs when all those factors coalesce. And they don’t always come together every time.

Certainly, students have an ability and a responsibility to overcome the factors that inhibit learning and obviously teachers have a duty to limit the impact of the negative and tap into the positive. But, or perhaps I should write BUT, we can’t expect that teachers can limit the impacts everyday for every lesson for every child. I might be able to help a student overcome their socio-economic status and the lack of educational tradition, but that doesn’t mean that every day, for every assignment, I can also help them feel safe, secure, and well-fed.

And let’s not forget that the barriers to student learning also apply to faculty teaching. Every semester, in a semi-joking tone, I tell my students what one of my professors once told me: Your problems will never become my problems but my problems will always become your problems. It sounds harsh, but how else do we imagine education can work? As a faculty member, I have  an obligation to help my students, but if I’m sick, tired, dealing with my own teenagers at home, getting divorced, or, heaven forbid, struggling with the information and the explanation of the information, student learning will be impacted.

While we might be able to pinpoint those factors that impact learning, we can’t necessarily pinpoint how those factors will interact with information delivered on any given day. This, it seems so inexplicably obvious, is why there are 17 million ways to teach Shakespeare or fractions or economics. One size doesn’t fit all because each day and each student is not one size.

It is time, quite frankly, for schools and educators to start fighting back. We need to begin putting pressure on Boards of Regents, Boards of Education, local business people, and politicians to hold themselves to the same standards. I want assessment and accountability and data on every decision those groups make. If they decide to hire a new president or superintendent, I want data on how they made the decision. I want businesses to give me clear data on how tax-breaks help create more jobs. I want to start asking for data on why their business makes my town a better place and warrants a tax break and I want businesses and politicians held responsible for the behavior of the people they serve. In other words, if my congressman is such a great representative, why does he have such a difficult time explaining some of his votes? In his defense, the issues are complicated, his listeners are often influenced by a variety of factors, and it’s difficult to speak in words that everyone interprets the same way. Oh, and sometimes people are busy and tired and not really focused. Kind of like students. Everyday.

Data isn’t the answer and letting those numbers drive the bus is, inconceivably, taking us to the cliff’s edge. We’re driving over it while our students are sitting at the bottom watching.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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