Friday, April 4, 2014

D: "Data" (a.k.a. Arne) Duncan: The Educational Numbers Game #AtoZChallenge

D-A-T-A: Count the letters; metaphorically speaking, data is a dirty word among many teachers. One certainly needn't worry about eye strain when looking for reasons teachers loathe the analytics now common-place in schools. Even math teachers detest the testing--the data-driven world of schooling. My principal, a former math teacher, and I shared our common distaste for standardized tests this morning just as I prepared to endure my third day of dispensing inaccurate information about poetry to students taking the SBAC. I had a script and have told students I'm acting a part wholly separate from my role as an English teacher and lover of poetry.

Maja Wilson (Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction) best articulates my attitude about the dirty word data in an Answer Sheet article, "Data: My New Dirty Word":

Teaching itself has become redefined as generating, collecting, and using data, and learning has become redefined as the curve connecting data points. This is a fundamental shift in how educators think, talk, and go about educating our children. Unfortunately, it is not a shift that serves anyone but the data-collectors very well.

Maja wrote her post in 2010, and things are much worse now, as a recent blog from Diane Ravitch attests. Ravitch published testimony from New Jersey teacher Douglas McGuirk decrying the data-driven dystopia teachers endure. In his testimony McGuirk writes: 

I am no longer certain about what my job description is these days; am I a teacher, one who attempts to engage students and help them understand subject matter and their world, or am I a data collector, one who keeps statistics on all manner of measurables in a theoretical attempt to improve the process of teaching in which I am often not engaged because I am busy collecting the data? 

McGuirk describes the impossible task teachers face in the virtual reality of data collection. We can no longer teach students, respond to their writing, conference with them, etc. because so much of the job is relegated to playing the numbers. 

I blame Arne Duncan. Under his tenure, not only have we seen a ballooning of required tests students must take, an increase in the use of flawed data to evaluate teachers, more money flowing to for-profit testing companies, and the continued shrinking and standardization of curriculum, but we have also seen new threats to student privacy. 

Duncan talks out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he calls for protecting student privacy by having "vigorous self-policing by commercial players." On the other hand, he advocates for the "extraordinary learning opportunities" data collection provides (via Education Week).

via Google images: free to use and share license
Duncan's data advocacy shrouds a sinister subtext: Data collection should be used to modify and adjust and differentiate student instruction with available "products." Stated as a syllogism, Duncan argues: Either we use data collection to improve student learning or we're left to the flawed human assessment of teachers. 

The Education Week article offers many platitudes about industry self-policing and Duncan's claimed concern for students' privacy. We've heard this rhetoric before. The bottom line is the bottom line. Businesses, even educational ones, are, after all in the business of doing business. That means making a profit. They're the kings in the counting house. The rest of us--students and teachers--are simply pawns. 

*Updated to correct typos at 3:46 MST.


  1. Our educational system has certainly made changes, and not good ones. Education should be a personal thing - human to human, not computer to computer.
    Good luck with A-Z! :)

  2. Great post and some excellent points raised - ones we should be talking about more often in my opinion.

  3. I'm glad we are teaching kids to fill in the bubbles. Two of my children loved the challenge of creating patterns and seeing what grades they got.
    Teaching used to be fun.
    Happy A to Z

    1. Moonie, I just traveled over to your blog, but I didn't see any posts. Hope to see some soon! Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  4. I've got immense respect for people like you who are on the front lines when it comes to education. It doesn't look very pretty these days.

    (and good luck with the contest!)

  5. Ah testing... Just finished Smarter Balanced testing with my third graders. Not sure what to think. But I appreciate challenging our current practices and being ourselves critical thinkers.
    2 Smart Wenches

  6. Couldn't agree more - my weekend is to prepare data on how the interventions started but 5 weeks ago have raised levels for children with special needs - this will be in addition to preparing more lesson plans for my crew to deliver to such children based on their needs, likes and educational issues!

  7. This is a fascinating insight into education in the US. So so different from New Zealand! Stopping by from #atozchallenge. O Brave New School @rosmaceachern