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The Deal With Data: No Silver Bullet

In the New York City Department of Education, each school falls under the stewardship of a certain "network," whose job is ostensibly to provide professional development, coordinate operations, coach administrators on the implementation of school policies, and generally "support" a small cohort of schools. Like many teachers, I have some questions about the efficacy of the networks as far as achieving any of these goals (though I may get struck by lightning for writing this in a public forum), especially given how unimpressed I've been with much of the professional development that they've facilitated; how inconvenienced I've been by some of their initiatives (like constantly having teachers redo their curriculum maps in different formats); and how confused I've been by some of their vague "mission/philosophy" statements. I had occasion to peruse these mission statements again tonight, while looking to see what role "data" play in the networks' daily operations.*

As it turns out, everyone likes data--almost every network's mission or area-of-expertise seems to involve "data analysis," "data-driven instructional plans," or providing "Data Specialists" as part of its support package for the schools within its vassalage. Mentioning the buzzword "data" immediately lends an air of legitimacy, scientific precision, and unassailable accuracy.

Apparently, this is not only true in the world of education--flaunting "data" is quite in vogue right now, as this article from this weekend's New York Times attests. "By combining the power of modern computing with the plentiful data of the digital era, it promises to solve virtually any problem--crime, public health, the evolution of grammar, the perils of dating--just by crunching the numbers," explain the article's authors--or so believe, they explain, champions of "Big Data." Within education, any number of current reform movements hold that their initiatives are backed by "data." This leads to categorical mandates about everything from technology use, to teacher training, to instruction: such-and-such must be taught THIS way to correlate with the latest "data"--usually garnered from students' standardized tests scores.

I maintain that there are practical applications for data in most industries, including education. However, as the authors of the Times article point out, Big Data are an imperfect means of gathering information: Results are subject to far too much correlation-causation confusion, are often insufficiently robust to be viewed as categorically accurate, can be intentionally "gamed" (particularly by those in industries that have a bottom line riding on these results...ahem, test-making companies), and offer scientific-seeming solutions to questions that require much deeper inquiry.

I find this last point to be especially true when viewing instructional mandates through the lens of "data," as the various networks seem keen that all their teachers do. ("Everything we do is supported by data," was the motto of a network to which my school used to belong; this was on the bottom of all its letterhead.) What will make for good teaching is, in many ways, far too nuanced to be predictable or quantifiable by "data." Rather, it relies on the "chemistry" of the students and teachers who are in the classroom together: their interests, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, good teaching relies on passion on the part of the teacher, and engagement on the part of the kids. None of that is measurable in a quantitative way. Data obtained through diagnostic exercises can be used to inform decisions about content or level of material; they are less good for categorical judgments about instructional techniques, assessment of students' mastery of material, or evaluations of teachers (you knew I'd sneak that in there, didn't you). Hopefully the networks will take note of this...and maybe everyone else, too.

* - Note that I am using the word "data" as a plural noun, which is in fact correct, even though it sounds a bit strange.

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