Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Data is Dehumanizing

The LA times published an analysis of value added test score data in an attempt to identify the "best" and "worst" teachers. But the whole thing is a sham because we end up talking about data when we should be talking about learning.

If you want to know how well someone can play baseball, you don't give them a test - you watch them play baseball.

The same goes for teachers. 

If you want to know how well someone teaches, you have to go watch them teach. Trusting indirect assessments such as test scores to properly inform us who the best and worst teachers are is lazy, cheap and grossly inaccurate. In other words, its education malpractice.

Now that Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan both openly support the release of  teachers' names and their label of either 'effective' or 'ineffective' based on test score data, they are leaders in education malpractice.

The problems here are many. Here's an incomplete list:

The greatest failure of trusting test scores more than teachers is that teachers might know more about how to improve a student's test score than they know the student.

Data is dehumanizing.


  1. Sad that the Obama administration wants data transparency with teachers (read "data judgement") and yet the banks still operate in a private, closed-office, opaque system that led to bailout.

    As a teacher who has "good data" behind me, I still say screw it all. That's not me. You want to know how I'm teaching? Sit down with a few students and talk to them one-on-one or visit my classroom for a couple of days.

  2. That sounds terrible! I really wonder how people can and do put up with such rubbish!
    Today, as I was reading through my ASCD SmartBrief headlines on my GoogleReader, I was getting aggravated just reading headlines including .. scores show..

    Scores show nothing. They show an imaginative average, they are manipulative. They do not show what amazing work the primary school teacher did when she was there to listen to her student. What difference the science teacher made in another student's life. They certainly do not show the learning that goes on in the schools and our world.

  3. I really like the comparison with baseball. Analysis of a ball player's performance is so data focused, yet the data relates to all the aspects of performing in the sport. A ball player's work would never be measured by performance on a pen and paper test, one voided of all the interactions and split-second decisions and behaviors at the heart of what it is to play this game well.

    Likewise, how could one take out the art and interacting and conversations and student response that happens through the day of teaching and learning, that captures the act of teaching?

    Finally, in baseball, you wouldn't consider teams played as all the same or even especially similar. Performing well in a game with the Yankees would be very different than performing well with the Orioles.

  4. well done - succinct yet effective post on this travesty...that blog post i sent you picked this apart so well, but can be wonkish - california's tests to rate teacher-ed programs (a sham by itself) actually allows for student scores to rate the teacher preparation programs!! just much more indirect can they get?? will my student's scores rate my old teachers? the job my parents did?? i'm gonna start cursing now, so i'll stop - Brian - @_teach4change

  5. Oh, Joe, you know I can't let you get away with a title like that. "Data ARE dehumanizing." You are hereby cited for a demerit by my #dataisapluralnoun posse.

    With that out of the way, I have a slightly different take here. Mostly, I think most folks often equate data with numbers. But, that's not accurate. Observing teachers, for instance, generates data. So, I believe a bit of precision is in order here. Perhaps "Purely quantitative data can be dehumanizing"?

    I wrote more about this a long time ago on Scott McLeod's blog here:

  6. Well said jonbecker - we should work to RECLAIM some words. I want to reclaim the word "data" to include qualitative as well as quantitative information. I want to reclaim the words "test" and "assessment" to include the more meaningful classroom techniques teachers use to get and give feedback about learning. I want to reclaim the word "grade" to include the idea that its feedback about learning, not a symbol of merit, effort, intelligence, etc. (and maybe "grade" shouldn't be one big letter like A or D - maybe it should be a narrative about what someone knows/is able to do . . . )

  7. @jonbecker, I think you are on to something. In my frustration with "reformers" I tend to rather disassociate myself from their language when in fact we need to reclaim the language they stole from us in the first place.

    The best teachers know data not as grades or test scores, but as anecdotal observations and conversations.

    How the hell do we reclaim some of this language?


Follow by Email