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Just Having Data Changes How Schools Make Decisions. But Should It?

Sometimes, it's not what the data show that changes how schools operate. The very existence of big student databases can change the direction of teaching, testing, and credentialing.

That's the main takeaway from a new analysis by Elana Zeide of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. The study is part of a special issue on research trade-offs in the journal Big Data.

Zeide argues that as schools adopt more data-based platforms for teaching or tracking student achievement, they move more of the development of lesson plans and instructional decisions from teachers to the algorithms and content set by the program developers. As she notes:

"Big data-driven tools define what 'counts' as education by mapping the concepts, creating the content, determining the metrics, and setting desired learning outcomes of instruction. These shifts cede important decision-making to private entities without public scrutiny or pedagogical examination. In contrast to the public and heated debates that accompany textbook choices, schools often adopt education technologies ad hoc."

The argument comes as Congress begins another debate over the future of education research and the use of student data. Zeide calls for policymakers and educators to require platforms that use student data to be more transparent about, for example, the research that underlies the benchmarks they use to track student progress or the pedagogy they use to set curriculum.

If nothing else, as massive amounts of student data are captured by various platforms, school staff will increasingly need to set policies for how to review it and make decisions on how to use it in the first place.

For example, as my colleague Ben Herold explains over at Digital Education, one Montgomery County, Md., father is pushing for June 30 to become the tongue-twisting "National Student Data Deletion Day" to draw attention to data some schools or educational apps collect on students internet-search histories, email, and even GPS locations.

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