Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tales from School: The Data Myth


My name is Brian G. Fay. I am five feet, ten and a half inches tall. I am forty-three years old, married, with two children. My parents are still alive and still married. I have Associates, Bachelors, and Masters degrees to go along with a high school diploma. I did very well on the New York State Regents examinations with no score lower than an 88. I scored well on the SAT exam and my verbal score exactly matched my math score. I have been a public school teacher for seventeen years. I could go on, but that's certainly enough data for you to know me.

In fact, it's too much data and too personal. I should have simply given numbers, placed myself in a couple of charts comparing myself to other men, teachers, and so on. Some of the information I've listed isn't very presentable in that it won't fit in a spreadsheet. Thus, it can't possibly matter.

You get my drift?

The sum of every number about me is not nearly enough to have much of an idea about me. That said, anyone who reads even a tenth of what I have been writing on this blog since last Halloween will know a great deal about me. They would likely have enough information to draw some conclusions about me as well. Still, even with that, they would probably need to spend a morning with me or the two of us would need to go to dinner in order to truly know enough about me to form a solid opinion.

Yet, every day, students in schools are reduced to test data because it is inefficient for administrators to know the students in their buildings and even less practical for politicians to have ideas about the kids in their city, county, state, or country. Thus, we have student 476859-00003512 who scored in the seventy-third percentile, has a lexile reading score one grade below average, has failed two state exams. That student attends a school that graduates 64% of its students, has teachers who rank from the 79th all the way down to the 16th percentile on the new teacher approval scales, and comes from a good home since there is no indication that he or she has accepted free or reduced lunch.

As I said, students are reduced to these numbers because it is inefficient to look at them in other ways. If there was only a trained adult who could know that student and report on them, then we might be able to do less with the numbers and more with meaningful interaction with the child. But teachers can't be trusted to gather this kind of information. Their data is suspect.

Schools too are suspect and thus their data must be compared across the state. In my state that means that kids in Buffalo have to be compared with rural kids in Cato-Meridian, and those have to compete with kids from the Bronx and all the hyper-funded schools upstate from New York City. A kid who gets up to milk cows before school is expected to know and do exactly the same things as one who rides the subway under the streets of Manhattan.

All of this, looked at in this way is ludicrous. No parent would choose to have their child looked at in this way and no adult looks back fondly on their student number or favorite day of testing. Instead, parents dream of caring adults raising their children up. Teachers long to work with students to create passion for learning. And students dream of not being bored out of their skulls or having to fill in more bubbles with a number two pencil.

Schooling isn't hard to figure out. All it takes is some common sense. Parents who want a great school need to be involved at least a little. They need to know the names of their children's teachers. They need to stop in to school once in a while or, failing that, call to check on things. They have to help their kids with some homework. And they need to stop listening to the nonsense coming out of state capitols, Congress, and the White House. None of those people know what's best for your child and most of them send their children to private schools.

Any system that seeks to reduce my daughters to data points is one I oppose. And here's the trick: I think of every kid in every public school across this country as being at least as worthy of good, caring education as my daughters are. I reject the data train. It is fool's gold. You should reject it too. Tell your representatives and get Barack Obama to fire Arne Duncan. While you're at it, tell Barack that his daughters really ought to be attending D.C. public schools. That might get him to do something real about education in our country instead of trying to run some idiotic Race to the Top.

Write on.