Yesterday I wrote in my blog about a new program being tested that provides young kids with wearable devices that track the number of words they hear or speak in the course of a day. Today I want to write about another form of datafication, this time being used in our schools. The Equal Opportunity Project at Stanford University has created an interactive data tool that effectively standardizes learning outcomes across the country. The tool offers three pieces of data: average test scores, learning rates, and trends in test scores, for every elementary and middle school in the nation. Schools, districts, and states will be able to compare themselves to each other and to a national average
There is much to be troubled about with this development. The idea of homogenizing data and using it as a read-out of the state of learning in America, raises the specter of the kind of totalitarianism more typically found in dictatorships. The fact is that you can’t compare data on test scores, because different states have used different tests. Moreover, you can’t make judgments comparing one district to another since districts vary widely in terms of socio-economic status. Schools in high-risk areas, particularly in urban settings, aren’t given the same opportunities to learn and achieve as schools in wealthy suburbs, so of course their test scores and learning rates are likely to be much lower, but this isn’t reflected at all in the data.
I’m starting to get really irritated by all the school articles I’ve been reading lately that are about ”data” – how to use ”data” effectively in the classroom, how to interpret ”data” at a district level, and now how to view the educational health of the country from ”data.” What’s missing from this picture is the human element. Teachers should be basing their decisions about instruction, not on data sets, but on their own past experiences of what has worked best with their students where the focus is on real human responses, not test scores. On the district, state, and national level, instead of obsessing about data, personnel should be more concerned about the deeper socio-economic inequities that allow for wide differences in test scores and learning rates, and they should be supporting legislation and social reforms that address these inequities.
What’s ultimately missing from this datafication in education is face-to-face interactions between real people and decisions made on the basis of actual real life experience. I’m reminded of how when you go into a restaurant these days you see people staring at their cell phones, not having conversations with each other. This is the same kind of thing that’s happening in education – educators all staring at a set of numbers for the answers, rather than facing each other honestly and with integrity as part of a concerted effort to engage students in the magic of learning.