For the Love of Data

Earlier this summer, Diane Ravitch highlighted in a blog post several points made by Susan Ochshorn in her writing of Big Data and Little Kids.  In short, an argument was made that a push for data based achievement creates casualties among students.

While I have an affinity towards all children, my work as an educator is dedicated to the empowerment of those who come from politically marginalized spaces.   Because we must have a way to identify the needs and progress of this specific group, I cannot understand the opposition to data as a viable component in the schooling process.

Focusing mainly on one of the highlights, I would like to publically join the conversation and share my thoughts.

 “Americans love data. We cannot get enough of it. Collectors on speed, we measure every indicator in sight” (Ochshorn as highlighted by Ravitch, June 3, 2015).

 My response is a question. What is wrong with a love for data?  Data collection, if done correctly, informs the current state of a program or a process.  The data tells the story about how things are going.  Without data, how does one answer the question?

For every part of an event/phenomenon that can be measured, it actually should be measured.  If we collect data in part, then we must discriminate between what is collected and what is not.  This discrimination is dangerous.   From a critical perspective, we must then question the authority that is assigned to discriminate and the condition in which such discrimination is being justified.

A common concern among my playmates when I was a child was whether or not another child was two-faced.  Being two-faced meant that a person had two different presentations.  And, how s/he determined which presentation to give was based on who was on the receiving end of the story.  If someone told you that you were being two-faced, they were essentially calling you a phony.  To them, you were inauthentic or lacking integrity.

But, in the conversation surrounding data and data-collecting, being two-faced is different.  It has a different value.

Just as noted by my childhood playmates, presentations can differ based on the audience and the agendas specific to those audiences.  However, in public education, there actually are different audiences with different agendas.  And, we need to collect and share data in a way that acknowledges this diversity.

While some may feel that we are becoming obsessed with testing any and every thing, I on the other hand feel that if we don’t, we will become dangerously close to having only one agenda (as shown when we get stuck highlighting only one type of data).

I am excited to see us in education moving toward being more two-faced, as in telling multiple stories.  In the political nature of public schooling, we cannot afford to give only one presentation.  First, different stakeholders need different information about the progress of students, teachers and schools.  Second, and most important, the complexities associated with marginalized groups make it absolutely imperative that we see their uniqueness… that their stories don’t get overshadowed by the stories of the whole.

Typically qualitative data, descriptive information about individual cases, tell a story of depth while quantitative data, summative information about a collection of cases, tell a story of breadth.  Both are critical to understanding the nature of the learner.

Unfortunately, some people want to report only on students as unique individuals while others only want to report on students as sociopolitical collectives.  I am not sure why this is hard to understand but we need both!  We need data that show the depths of students as individuals and we need data that show the breath of students as collectives.

To look at a child in his individual development and not take a look at how he is developing according to like demographics fails to inform us about his political state and treatment.  Likewise, to look at a collection of students, in terms of their sociopolitical demographics, and not take a look at their individual uniqueness violates the psychological premise of learning and development.

I absolutely support Ravitch in the following highlight of Ochshorn’s work:

“Assessing readiness ‘a somewhat narrow and artificial construct of questionable merit,’ as one early childhood expert put it, is daunting. Kids develop on wildly different timelines, their progress difficult to capture in a snapshot.”

 Ochshorn is correct when she says that snapshot data only provides specific information about a given moment in a child’s academic career.  It is for this reason that multiple snapshots are needed from multiple moments.  Like an animation is the culmination of hundreds of individual shots, we must become producers of moving pictures entailing hundreds of still, single moments of a child’s development.

In conclusion, we must measure all indicators, “every indicator in sight” if you will, if we want a robust understanding of our learning community.  Unlike being two-faced as lacking integrity as argued by my childhood friends, we must become two-faced in order to protect the integrity of student performance—especially those students, by their minority status, that get engulfed as being a representation of the whole.  In the end, it is the only way to protect the fidelity of our cause to adequately serve all students.

 

[Note: If you read the original article in which Ravitch references, you will get a sense of a more holistic, value-based approach to data.]


One thought on “For the Love of Data

  1. Love this piece. This is my favorite part:

    “I am excited to see us in education moving toward being more two-faced, as in telling multiple stories. In the political nature of public schooling, we cannot afford to give only one presentation. First, different stakeholders need different information about the progress of students, teachers and schools. Second, and most important, the complexities associated with marginalized groups make it absolutely imperative that we see their uniqueness… that their stories don’t get overshadowed by the stories of the whole.”

    Your idea of the benefits of a two-faced approach to data and education is fantastic. As much as I like to huff and puff over on my blog, I appreciate your nuanced approach. I think you’re absolutely right; the complexity of contemporary teaching means adhering to a single perspective misses out on the whole picture.

    Thanks for bringing up the importance of data in asserting agency as an individual and as a collective.

    Liked by 1 person

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