Data driven

“Education as  a Data Driven Enterprise” was a report produced by the Alliance for Excellent Education (a DC based policy and advocacy group), Civic Enterprises (another public policy firm), the Data Quality Campaign (focused on getting states to operate longitudinal data systems) and AT&T (its Aspire program focuses on high school drop out rates).  The report came out in 2011, but since data is such a hot topic now, I thought I’d give you all an overview of what the data collectors’ vision for educational data is all about. Given the list of report developers, is it any surprise their conclusion is that we need much more data to be collected from the public sector? Is it any surprise that they list  corporations, non-profits and policymakers as key stakeholders in education? The report as a whole is a massive self serving rationalization of why they should be collecting our children’s data and why we might happily allow them to do so.

The first section of the report focuses on the benefits of a Data-Driven Educational System. The subsection headers are one blow to rationality and constitutional protections after another.

Take this one from page 3. “More transparent and actionable information to external stakeholders:”  The justification given for this invasion of privacy instead lays out exactly where public education has gone wrong.

Prior to a parent-teacher conference, a parent uses a web portal to view information about her child, including an academic progress report, historical performance benchmarked against other students in the same grade in the school, an analysis of whether her child is on track to graduate ready for college, and a list of questions to discuss with the teacher.

I can tell you as a parent, I wouldn’t need an expensive portal if the schools did what they used to do, SEND A CHILD’S GRADED WORK HOME. This has become a hit or miss proposition at best in many schools and is actually prohibited in some districts. I wouldn’t need to log on and see a grade if I could see my child’s actual test and see what they are getting wrong. I might even be able to help at home by reviewing the topics that he/she is struggling with. Instead I will now be “informed” what questions I should ask. Talk about planting softballs for the teacher or principal!

And as far as comparing my child’s performance against that of other students, of what value is that to me? I know the danger of even doing that with one of my own children vs another. Every child is different. They come preloaded with different personalities and abilities. In a grade full of kids who come from different socio economic backgrounds, with parents of different abilities, all this comparison becomes is either a way to beat myself up, or the teacher, if my child’s performance is low. How useful is such a comparison to a parent stuck in a particular job, (because there he at least has health insurance that is not managed by the government) who cannot afford to send the child for supplemental instruction or does not have the time to do the teaching himself because he is so busy working two jobs?

Businesses, on the other hand, love to know about their competitors. They live or die based on numbers like ratings, market share and bottom lines. Seems like that kind of data would be more useful to a business than a parent. But since they think your child is human capital, they assume you do as well and would appreciate this kind of data.

Let’s not forget that the section header says the information is actionable to “external” stakeholders. Though the rationale they give seems aimed at parents, it is clear from everything else in the report that the external stakeholders are public policy groups like Alliance for Excellent Education, corporations like AT&T and Microsoft, and legislators at ALL levels of government. All that data isn’t really just for the parents and teachers.

Information to guide difficult decision making: A state legislator who leads the appropriations committee uses longitudinal data about program effectiveness to inform decision making about budget allocations.

Since when? The data that came out of the 40 year Head Start Program showed limited effectiveness of the program, helping only the most at risk students and only for a limited period of time. Additionally, it was impossible to tease out the effects of other factors, like interventions with the mothers, to determine what part of the program was most effective. This data has not slowed the push, from the President on down the education bureaucracy, for early childhood education programs. Legislators can just as easily be told to ignore the data and trust the emotional appeal, as be counted on to consider the data.

Informed policy making: Using an analysis of high school graduates’ success in college, a state board of education member learns that significant numbers of students are passing high school exit exams, 
but needing college remediation. The board works with the state’s education leadership in K–12 and higher education to align high school graduation requirements with college entrance requirements.

This one is a hoot, in light of common core. State Boards of Education will no longer determine the standards that are taught k-12. A distant NGO (CCSSI) gets that honor. The only way to reduce college remediation will be for colleges to align THEIR entrance requirements to what is coming out of k-12. That was in fact the plan and you have only to look at the eligibility requirements for Race to the Top funding which required states applying for RTTT competitive grants to guarantee that their states’ public universities would exempt students, who have passed the Common Core–aligned tests, from remedial courses and place them automatically into credit-bearing courses. No one knows what a student who has passed the as yet untested common core aligned tests looks like. Where is the data in that decision? Obviously data doesn’t matter all that much to policy makers.

The Executive Summary lays out the goals of this group.  It envisions “leaders in business, philanthropy and education (The order is important. Education is last.)  playing a key role  to “help build capacity for data use while protecting privacy. With advances in research, technology, and assessments, and with a focused effort, the U.S. education system can lead the world in becoming a data-driven enterprise.”

Note it does not say the goal is to produce more well adjusted happy children who view education as a life long value, who can work competitively in a capitalist free market system that rewards entrepreneurship. No. It says the goal is to make American education a data driven culture. Who said we are all in agreement with this goal? Do you remember being asked? I must have missed that PEW poll.

Although the U.S. education system increasingly produces and collects more data, that information often is not shared, or comes too late to prompt appropriate interventions and supports.

The predicate of that sentence is quite true. The American education system has been focused on collecting more and more data for some time. How has that worked out for us? Has it worked to prompt timely appropriate interventions and support?

It certainly did not work in Ohio where a 14 year old boy, who had shown signs of abuse which the school dutifully reported to Child Protective Services, as policy dictated, was pulled out of school by his parents, ostensibly to home school him. Social Services never followed up on the reports and ultimately he was beaten to death at home.  A legislator there tried to introduce a bill (policy) to make it a requirement for social services to “approve” a family for home schooling. The same agency that didn’t follow policy in the first place by investigating the numerous original reports of abuse, was now lobbying for more policy. When government does not have the will or ability to follow policy, all the data in the world is useless. How would using data to generate more policy to be ignored in the future help?

It certainly has not helped our students with special needs. Here is an area where we are the kings of data collection and reporting. We also have hefty public policy regarding special needs students. From the IDEA we have IEPs,  due process requirements and protection against experimentation. Our special ed teachers spend and inordinate amount of time filling out reports that often go unread due to the sheer volume of data available. All that data and policy will be overlooked when the new common core aligned tests come out with no validity or reliability data associated with them, but which will be administered to special ed students in the grandest experiment of them all. In the mean time, the teachers who are best able to do really positive things for these children are instead spending their days as data gatherers.

More from the E.S.

Three developments in education data are positive
 signs that the education sector is in the midst of this transformation into a data-driven enterprise: longitudinal data1 that connects information about students from
 the time they start school until they enter their careers; early-warning data2 that predicts dropping out, such as poor attendance, bad behavior, and course failure, and prompt the appropriate supports; and college- and career- readiness indicators3 that demonstrate whether students are well prepared to advance their post secondary education and successfully enter the workplace.

1 Longitudinal data tracked for whose benefit? Certainly not the parents. They will always know their child better than the school experts (sorry school experts). The schools already know this information because the student has sat in their classrooms and completed their coursework. We need such tracking systems so “stakeholders and policy makers” can know this data. This is looky-loo self serving interest. I can understand government and business really WANTING this data. I can understand the good things they envision doing with such data, but I can also see the potential damage they could do with it. At the core is the fact that they simply have no right to know everything about you. Can we ever get them to understand that? Their desire is not outweighed by our right not to supply them with our data, and for free no less.

2 Early warning data, again for who? The parents already know and have probably been through heated debates at home about the mentioned problems, if they care, or are in no position to do anything about them if they don’t. The teachers know it. They know how many time Roland has missed school or how poorly he is doing on school work.  Do they need to share that data with anyone else? What about young mothers? Does anyone besides the parent, teacher and maybe counselor in a school building need to know that a student has a child at home that could be affecting her work? What policies could be created to address these predictive data points?

Please show me the government policy that will prevent teenage pregnancy that doesn’t completely dismantle our basic human rights.  As for attendance, we have a policy in our state under the Missouri School Improvement Plan that asks schools to shoot for 90% of the students attending 90% of the time. Why? Because a correlation between absenteeism and poor student performance exists in the numbers. But the 90/90 policy based on this data goes on to question even excused absences due to things like accidents or disease, requiring parents to essentially “prove” that their child has what policy decides is a legitimate reason to be out of school. What policy will you develop to address those things? Will children no longer be able to participate in activities that could lead to injury because those activities could keep them out of school for a while? Say goodbye to the high school football program if you follow the data.

Will we require every vaccine developed to be given to every child if they attend public school? Such data driven absence policies already push parents into sending children, who should be home in bed resting and getting well, back to school where they will not perform their best and where they will likely share their germs with all the other children. Can you tell I am not a fan of this data driven policy?

3 C&C indicators. We will now work to define what C&C readiness looks like. We will label you with a mutually agreed upon predefined data point. We will then use that label to determine if you go on to college because our data will be the gatekeeper. So much for not defining people by their skin color or their zip code. The data will clearly show that living in certain zip codes is an “indicator” that you will not be prepared for college. Where are the liberals on this?

American public education system, where data is often not yet fully utilized to inform decision making, improve student outcomes and guide instructional practice.

Guide instructional practice? There is no guide if you are basing policy on data. There are only policy dictates. So much for not telling teachers how to teach.

In light of these new demands, students, parents, states, and the nation—and, increasingly, businesses, foundations, and nonprofits—want to understand what progress is being made and what return they are getting on their investments.

There it is. The real reason for all the data gathering. They insist we view education as a business investment and the investors want a return on their money. Education suppliers want us to use their products, supply them with free feedback on how the products are working so they can improve them and turn around and sell them to us for more money because they are “new and improved.”  It is a great business model that benefits primarily the business. Non-profits who are solely fixated on a return on their investment in education should lose their IRS status or get out of education.

This final gem is from the ending to the Executive Summary. “The continued transformation of the public education system into a data-driven enterprise is necessary…”

Only to the people gathering the data is this necessary. The teachers don’t think so. Look at what happened to teachers in NY who had wildly successful classrooms with very happy parents, but who almost lost their jobs because of the way the data from their students test scores was interpreted. “Your students scores didn’t improve over the previous year. Sure they were in the 98th percentile, but there was no improvement.” The parents don’t think so and the students have almost no say. Administrators and policy makers may agree, but only because their jobs have been made dependent on the numbers, not on customer (parents and students) happiness.

How is the data really going to be used to set policy? Most likely exactly as Governor Nixon here in Missouri is using it to defend a pre-determined policy that would end teacher tenure and base future teacher retention on student performance. On the post linked above you can hear him telling the National Governor’s Association about his plans to use data. Through a “coalition of the willing on the front end… [we] put a pilot study in place… and then we’ll prove it on the back side on what works…that was our theory.”  Data will be generated in a biased manner by those willing to go along with the preset policy, ignoring high quality data gathered by the Hoover Institute which demonstrated that student scores on standardized tests are a poor indicator of teacher quality.  This is not data driven decision making. This is power brokers using data as window dressing for their policies.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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