Our recent history of school improvement is replete with examples of great ideas that have been coopted by legislators, regulators and even some school administrators. They turn each new suggestion to improve education into a bureaucratic monster, corrupting its intent, extending it beyond its purpose, encouraging its commercialization and declaring it the latest silver bullet for school reform.
The understanding of how schools work and how they can be improved, knowledge that has been available for forty years, is pushed aside as we continue to look for universal solutions and immediate results. More testing, tougher standards, common core curriculum, higher qualifications for teachers, tougher teacher evaluations, and higher graduation requirements for students, all important elements in the mission to improve education in and of themselves, have all been hijacked by individuals with too little knowledge about the importance of each and apparently no understanding as to how these elements are meant to work together as part of the school improvement process.
The latest example is the corruption of data driven decision making by the New York City Department of Education where under the direction of “networks”, according to the blog View From the Bronx written by Llana Garon, small cohorts of schools will be guided in using data to provide professional development, coordinate operations, coach administrators and generally support schools in their improvement efforts. Garon fears and rightly so that “Big Data” will lead to categorical mandates about everything but be based on limited data garnered only from the vantage point of standardized tests.
Her fears are well founded. While all data has practical implications, in the hands of those with limited knowledge and often misguided agendas, data can be used to confuse causation with correlation, are often too narrow in scope to be accurate and as the author points out too easily “gamed”. Data solutions are often presented by policy makers and policy implementers as scientific evidence to support simple solutions to issues requiring a much broader and deeper analysis.
Accountability and measurement must be an integral part of assessing the effectiveness of a school and should inform the school improvement process. But it requires multiple measures to capture the passion of teachers, the engagement of students and to determine the efficacy of a teacher, a program or a school.
Data can inform many decisions leading to school improvement but it cannot be extrapolated to measure everything we do or direct us towards what we need to do.
I just hope this won’t become another good idea gone bad.