Vail Daily column: The lure (and peril) of big data
July 26, 2016
The Every Student Succeeds Act, the recently reauthorized federal law that is now driving decisions about education policy in the United States, contains a provision requiring states to add at least one new indicator of school quality or success outside of the more established measures like academic tests, English-language proficiency and graduation rates. In response, states across the country are grappling with what these new measures might be and what is the appropriate way to use them in a school rating system.
The Every Student Succeeds Act took the place of the prior and much maligned No Child Left Behind. However, at the insistence of the Obama administration, education reform groups, and civil rights advocacy groups, the provisions around school ratings and accompanying consequences — collectively called accountability systems — still features heavily in the new law.
Not that they were prohibited from doing so before, many states are now using this as an opportunity to look more broadly at school quality, past test scores and the like. Things being considered include measures of school climate, absenteeism, discipline and college and career readiness — an ill-defined term in itself.
In general, thinking about school quality from a broader spectrum of indicators is a good thing. The hyper-focus on test scores, which measure a fairly narrow set of student skills and are heavily influenced by student poverty factors, are weak and error-filled proxies for what is and is not a good school.
This nationwide effort toward attaching something besides test scores to schools is being hailed as innovative in many policy circles. If simply adding another measure so we can re-rank schools is considered innovation, we've set a pretty low bar for educational transformation, at least in my professional opinion.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with the addition of these newer kinds of measures, the core approach to using such measures to rank, shame and punish schools and those who work in them as a means of raising system quality is a fundamentally doomed approach.
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Don't get me wrong — measures can indeed provide useful information. But this information is only valuable if it is translated into real action at the individual student level. More directly, the presence of school rating data does nothing to impact change.
Rather, it's the actions of people working in schools and communities to improve teaching, learning and mitigate the impact of student poverty that are the only things which have ever improved student outcomes at scale.
So, states, including ours, should indeed go about the work of improving measures of school quality. But we must beware of the false theory that the collection of this new data point and some direct effort to shame and punish people will effect a positive system change.
State system players can get deeply lost in the world of data collection, complex and interconnected data systems, ways schools can earn points — as if it were some big game — and ranking schemes. These same state players can also be wooed into spending literally millions of taxpayer dollars on the collection, management and pretty display of all of this data.
But let us not be confused. Data has no superpower — that comes from the doing; the actions taken by educators, families, students and the communities in which they live will improve education outcomes. Real and genuine effort is what's needed to learn and grow.
Let's hope Colorado doesn't become seduced by the lure of big data, and that we keep our eyes on the prize.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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