How Reformers Have Hijacked “Data”

This is my response to the letter I recently received from a colleague, with whom I am exchanging letters on various education-related issues. The original text of her letter can be found on her blog.

Dear Donna,

Long time, no write! I was very happy to read your letter and look forward to using this space to debunking the myth of data that has been perpetrated upon teachers.

There are two types of data.

You have data, which, when properly interpreted and used, encourages individualized, relevant, and urgent teaching. This is the kind of data we should all – reformers, traditionalists, principals, and parents – embrace. Here, “data” is a term that ought to frighten us on the scale of words like “puppy,” “kitten,” and “rainbow.”

The other type of data has become so important, and its use so encouraged, that its status can only be expressed thusly: Data. “Data” sounds like “data” (with the short a or the long a!) and it even looks like “data.” Where Data and data part ways, though, is in their use to students and teachers. It is Data that is undermining teachers like you. In fact, that this four-letter word is allowed to be uttered about and around children as frequently as it is is one of the great annoyances of education reform in this country.

Any dedicated teacher who truly wants to inspire the greatest achievement in her students understands the value of good data. I get this kind of data from quizzes, conversations with students, observations of what they’re saying and doing, homework, and exit slips. When I interpret the data, I am able to determine what my next steps should be for individuals and the whole class. This is what is meant by “data-driven instruction.”

You see how nice it is? Don’t you want to cuddle up with some data and figure out how it’s going to help you better teach your students? Of course, you already do, and you do it reflexively. I know you do because you understand its value. Any teacher who uses data would be considered in tune with student needs and is actively considering every student’s unique situation. This takes skill and dedication and teachers who use data to figure out next steps ought to be celebrated because they are truly tailoring their instruction to meet students where they are.

Data with a capital d serves a whole other purpose and has an entirely different value, neither of which have been determined yet! It seems that Data is mainly used to point out just how awful teachers like you and me are. That’s because Data essentially amounts to student standardized test scores. Unfortunately, too many know-it-alls in the reform dialogue don’t know what to you, me, and most is self-evident: all students are not the same!

Based on the Data on you, a teacher of beginner ESL students brand new to the country, published by New York’s papers, you are one of the worst teachers in the school, if not the city. I suspect if any Data was available on me, a teacher of self-contained special education, I’d be right there with you. The incredible fallacy of Data is that it doesn’t account for student needs and environmental factors the way the data we collect does. So that makes Data a prickly issue for those of us who know the term has been hijacked.

Now we have clarified the differences between “data” and “Data.” For a teacher who wants to encourage the greatest in her students, there are few tools that she has at her disposal that are more important than “data.” Unfortunately, when a reformer says “data,” they really mean, “Data,” and it is their failure to understand the difference that harms students and teachers.

Interpreting data is part of our job, but being chastised for Data shouldn’t be.



2 responses to “How Reformers Have Hijacked “Data”

  1. Reblogged this on No Sleep 'til Summer:: and commented:
    Here is my colleague’s reply to my letter.

  2. Matt, I agree with you completely. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place with data/Data and their respective “purposes.” We just finished up round one of standardized testing and I blogged about it, quoting you from this post because of your strong position and descriptions of data use. Thank you for your perspective!


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