Kendall Paine:  The Harrowing, Narrowing Effects of Data in Public Schools!

Dear Commons Community,

Kendall Paine, a teacher in the Seattle public schools, has an essay in the current online version of the Teachers College Record, that points out the effects of data-driven practices in K-12 education.  While commenting on the positive effects of data-based decision-making, she also points out its subtle problems.  Here is an excerpt:

“It will not come as a surprise that, in this era of accountability, schools are saturated in data. But what might be less apparent to outsiders is that educators are using this data to refine and narrow their focus in unprecedented ways.

As with all trends, this effect is nuanced. On the positive side, schools are streamlining instruction and focusing on core, critical standards. Given that we are living in an age in which classrooms have access to seemingly infinite amounts of information, this clear focus is imperative—among other benefits, it guards against the tendency to become distracted by a constant stream of peripheral content. Data systems, in their effort to track progress on specific learning targets, have played a critical role in this narrowing process (Sloan, 2006). While these controls might initially confine and constrict teachers’ practices, they ultimately develop teachers’ expertise in key content areas, thereby enhancing the professionalism of the teaching force (Apple, 2000). Inevitably, teachers experience this streamlining in various ways—some with enthusiasm, and some with resentment. But the overall impact of all of this data on the quality of education that is being uniformly delivered throughout the United States is long overdue, and overwhelmingly positive.

The picture of the narrowing effect becomes more controversial when we consider not what educators are concentrating their efforts on, but for whom. While data systems are forcing teachers to track and target specific standards, they are also in some cases causing teachers to target specific students at the exclusion of others. In the process of tracking specific standards, schools often implement systems that label and stratify students according to their performance on key indicators. The mechanisms employed are varied—data walls, performance continuums, coded spreadsheets—but almost invariably, students are categorized into some version of “green,” “yellow,” or “red” subsets (Booher-Jennings, 2005). Green students are those who consistently perform at or above grade level, yellow students are approaching grade-level performance, and red students are significantly below the prescribed academic standard for that indicator.

The intentions behind this process are benign, even noble. In theory, by categorizing students for each standard, schools can allocate resources according to need. In practice, however, the allocation of resources happens quite differently. Because high-stakes tests, and therefore school data systems, measure proficiency as a percentage, resources are disproportionately diverted toward the “yellow” students as a means of increasing the school’s aggregate score (Booher-Jennings, 2005). By reallocating scarce resources in this way, schools can create the impression of improvement by augmenting their overall passing rates, even though an entire subset of students—in fact, those who are most at-risk—experience very little movement toward their academic goals, if any movement at all. In effect, these data systems only serve to further entrench students at either end of the spectrum, while tipping middle-of-the-road students toward the higher end of the scale. And it is all happening because educators are, perhaps unwittingly, narrowing their focus to a specific subset of students.”

Her conclusion and recommendation is:

“The potential for data use to effect change is vast—indeed, we are already seeing how data systems have streamlined our focus toward those standards that are considered most critical for students’ development. But in the long run, these advantages can only yield positive results if such focused instruction is delivered equitably to all students—and by a vital, sustainable teaching force. Under our current practices, that vision is simply not a reality. Because schools—and by extension teachers— are measured by concrete percentages of proficiency, certain cohorts of students are being completely sidelined, and teachers’ notions of quality instruction are being turned inside out.

Rather than staying this ill-fated course, it would serve both groups to embed a wider spectrum of growth measurements into all of our data-collection mechanisms. While still focusing on a narrowed set of learning targets, we need to track students’ progress over time, as opposed to dichotomizing student performance as either passing or failing. This will hold educators accountable to all subsets of students, thereby simultaneously giving them more freedom to teach in a way that more closely approximates their constructivist ideas of education. To be certain, this is a lofty and complicated endeavor. Among other challenges, it means fundamentally shifting from a performance orientation to one of mastery (Marsh et al., 2014). Attempts to measure progress over time, as opposed to a blunt percentage, will inevitably undergo repeated cycles of trial-and-error before we achieve a more successful system. But if the alternative means neglecting the education of our most at-risk students, and demoralizing our teachers in the process, we simply cannot afford not to. This is one of the greatest educational imperatives of our time, and we have to engage it now.”

Ms. Paine provides excellent commentary that should be read by all educators and especially those in policy positions at the federal and state levels.



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