Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

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One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

 

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at a high poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

 

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

 

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

 

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

 

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

 

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

 

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

 

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

 

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.'”

 

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

 

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

 

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

 

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

 

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

 

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

 

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

 

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

 

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

 

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

 

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

 

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last 8 years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

 

So much for empirical data.

 

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

 

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

 

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

 

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

 

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

 

And THAT’S education!

 

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

 

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

 

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

 

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

 

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

 

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

 

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?

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32 thoughts on “Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

  1. Excellent as always. I’m so tired of everyone valuing data over children. To be honest, the thought of weekly data meetings, data walls, and having to answer for poor data (in the primary grades!) is making me more and more reluctant to try to return to the classroom.

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  2. I think the problem is people do not recognize that they are building a global financial market on this data. It is not about education, it is about creating investment opportunities for ed-tech and setting the stage for “learning” opportunities that will happen largely via devices outside of school settings. And it’s not just K12, this is continuing education, HR management, professional training. They want EVERYTHING in a digital format so we can be assessed, tracked, commodified forever.

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  3. The end game here is online education Steven Singer. But a program cannot “teach” – a program can only train at best. We are losing our profession right before our eyes. We are losing our children right before our eyes. We are losing our country and our freedoms – right before our very eyes. Who will resist? It’s not enough that you and I resist every school day. The nation has to resist.

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  4. YES. While teachers across the nation have tried to point out how much wasted time and energy is poured into producing and analyzing data at the expense of our students’ educational time, “the only response…from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data…”

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  5. As an administrator, I can see you are obviously an exceptional teacher that assesses your students and knows their levels. You are in your classroom, teaching the standards and doing a remarkable job and I trust what you say, but do you know for sure all teachers teach like you do. Unfortunately there are teachers out there not teaching their students, therefore data is needed for proof. Be proud of your data that it shows and confirms what you know.
    When things are written like this it makes ineffective teachers feel they don’t need it, but in reality they do need it. We are not perfect so the opportunity to see something we have have missed or confirm our thoughts is beneficial.

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    • Kaycie, thanks for the thoughtful comment, but I’m not convinced. If administrators observed teachers regularly and effectively, there would be no need for this kind of computerized data. But this same system forces administrators to be the keepers of the data instead of being lead teacher. It perverts the relationship between teachers and administrators just as it does between teachers and students.

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    • Wow, Kaycie, have you internalized the utter nonsense that the data you use is supposedly objective. That data you use is rife with error, falsehood and other subjective (not a bad thing) decisions that go into determining the parameters of that data. Let me guess, and I may be wrong, but how many years did you teach before becoming an adminimal? Less than 10? Less than 5? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      “Be proud of your data. . . ” Horse manure, and that is putting it kindly. Read and understand the following to begin to realize just how insane using that data for anything is:

      The most misleading concept/term in education is “measuring student achievement” or “measuring student learning”. The concept has been misleading educators into deluding themselves that the teaching and learning process can be analyzed/assessed using “scientific” methods which are actually pseudo-scientific at best and at worst a complete bastardization of rationo-logical thinking and language usage.

      There never has been and never will be any “measuring” of the teaching and learning process and what each individual student learns in their schooling. There is and always has been assessing, evaluating, judging of what students learn but never a true “measuring” of it.

      The TESTS MEASURE NOTHING, quite literally when you realize what is actually happening with them. Richard Phelps, a staunch standardized test proponent (he has written at least two books defending the standardized testing malpractices) in the introduction to “Correcting Fallacies About Educational and Psychological Testing” unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag with this statement:

      “Physical tests, such as those conducted by engineers, can be standardized, of course, but in this volume , we focus on the measurement of latent (i.e., nonobservable) mental, and not physical, traits.”

      Notice how he is trying to assert by proximity that educational standardized testing and the testing done by engineers are basically the same, in other words a “truly scientific endeavor”. The same by proximity is not a good rhetorical/debating technique.

      Since there is no agreement on a standard unit of learning, there is no exemplar of that standard unit and there is no measuring device calibrated against said non-existent standard unit, how is it possible to “measure the nonobservable”?

      THE TESTS MEASURE NOTHING for how is it possible to “measure” the nonobservable with a non-existing measuring device that is not calibrated against a non-existing standard unit of learning?????

      PURE LOGICAL INSANITY!

      The basic fallacy of this is the confusing and conflating metrological (metrology is the scientific study of measurement) measuring and measuring that connotes assessing, evaluating and judging. The two meanings are not the same and confusing and conflating them is a very easy way to make it appear that standards and standardized testing are “scientific endeavors”-objective and not subjective like assessing, evaluating and judging.

      To further understand the “infidelities to truth” that are involved with this not so grand delusional data driven currently fashionable means of assessing students and teachers I offer you (and anyone else) an electronic draft copy of my book “Infidelity to Truth: Education Malpractice in American Public Education”. Email me at duaneswacker@gmail.com and I’ll gladly send it to you.

      Whatever is measured counts
      Whatever counts is measured
      And counting whatever measures
      Is measuring whatever counts
      SomeDam Poet.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Teaching and learning cannot be “measured”. They can only be experienced. Predictive algorithms are widely inaccurate pseudo science, Standardized tests have a very narrow scope and show very little of what students can do, have learned, or have potential for. Data can never give you a complete picture and cannot tell you anything about the whys or how to improve anything. Data can tell nothing about the teacher/student relationship or how to motivate the student. I have had so many administrators who taught five years or less and became administrators because they didn’t like teaching and were not successful at it. They can’t be instructional leaders because they don’t know how to teach, and looking at data in their ivory tower (office) is not going to help them learn or inform the teacher how to improve.

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      • Grading is “measuring”. It is by far the most important measure in high school where grades determine GPA and class rank.

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  6. Mental masturbation is all that data driven decision making is. It has nothing to do with the actual teaching and learning process that goes on in a classroom minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day other than to give a false sense of objective (sic) assessment.

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  7. As mentioned, maybe not this bluntly, but the data is not for educators. It is for the businesses and politicians to justify screwing up real education.
    I was fired from a VA school because I refused to “improve” my state pass rate from 95% overall and 100% Special Education for four years to 70%. The school wanted to qualify for “Schools in Need” type funding and 95% pass rates did not show a need.
    I left VA and went to ND for a warmer climate (LOL). I was told “Under NO circumstances are you to fix math education at Warwick Public School”. They wanted to qualify for a $250 k per year grant, for which they qualified. “Follow the money honey”. I believe there is a fix.
    The one thing in common for every program and other nonsense ever forced on schools, teachers, and students is that they have never been proven to work BEFORE they we implemented. A national law that stated “No program or method may be implemented at any level of education that has not first been statistically or historically proven to help at least 80% of students to succeed academically.” This is possible. 200 years ago, US citizens were 80% literate by the Third-Grade. They were able to read The Federalist Papers and Common Sense, everyday language. Today, college graduates, considered “proficient”, note: not literate, cannot read these and other literary or historic documents.
    If this rule or law had been in force for the last century, we would have never had “New Math” that failed in the 1950s and has been re-branded as Common Core Math. We would have never had “Sight Reading” that failed in the 1960s and re-branded as Common Core close reading. We would have never had the “Schools Without Walls”, Open Classroom that failed and is being re-branded as Common Core, Project-Based Learning Open Classroom. We would have never had NCLB, ESSA, Race to the Top or any of the other failed unproven experimental programs. Don’t our children deserve proven teaching over experiments? Are our children “Human Capital Guinea Pigs” to be experimented on with schools being educational laboratories?

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  8. What’s particularly frustrating (you know, aside from the endless child torture) is that these mysterious metrics and growth goals that they won’t tell anyone how they arrived at are used to measure teacher effectiveness. I may or may not add enough “value” to my classroom as determined by these mysterious scores. If I am found to not add enough “value” to my classroom, I don’t make as much money as my peers. So basically, it pays to drill and kill and teach to the test, at least in places still super excited about merit pay. It also, unfortunately, pays to cheat, and teachers are cheating. This is why a class that aced the state test in 4th grade gets to 5th and can barely read. This isn’t accidental. It’s not a coincidence. It’s a teacher saying to herself, “You know what? I really need that extra $5000 in merit pay so I’m going to go back and fix a few bubbles, or stand over these kids’ shoulders while they test on the computer.” Then the 5th grade teacher is screwed, because she can’t show growth over an artificially-inflated score.

    It’s unfortunate there are no fancy metrics for “The teacher taught this 4th grader his alphabet this year because the charter school he was at dropped the ball entirely” or “The teacher managed to get this kiddo to make it through the day without having a violent, raging, dangerous temper tantrum due to her hard work in building relationships” or “This teacher did a great job consoling this child after her mother died.” Unmeasurables in education tend to be more important, and completely overlooked these days.

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