Time to Ditch the Data Boogeyman

Time to Ditch the Data Boogeyman

Some proponents of education data treat it as a cure-all that will instantly fix ailing schools. It’s not. Nor is it a boogeyman coming to rob children of their privacy, creativity, and individuality, as detractors make it out to be. Education data is a tool—a powerful one that encompasses many types of information, from test scores to teacher observations. And when it’s used sensibly, it helps everyone involved in a child’s education keep that child on the path to success.

That’s why I was surprised Friday to read NPR’s piece “5 Doubts About Data-Driven Schools,” which treats data like a Pandora’s Box threatening to unleash on the world a number of horrors, from helicopter parenting to student self-stereotyping. It’s about time that our country is having a serious conversation about how data is used and safeguarded, but speculating about poorly evidenced threats can drown out legitimate concerns and jeopardize ways that data is being used right now to help students.

As a parent, I of course have concerns about data, as I do about every aspect of my daughters’ education. The solution is not to shut off the power of information, but to address concerns with transparency, policy, and the constant improvement of practices around data use and protection. Is anyone arguing that I should have less information about my children’s schooling? I wish I could believe that “no news is good news,” but we are still hearing stories about parents finding out at the end of the year that their child has to repeat a grade (or won’t be graduating, or can’t get a job!) when that child had fallen off the path to success months—perhaps years—earlier. If an appropriate early warning system had been in place, it could have triggered interventions that involved the child’s teachers, parents, and school administrators.

We can’t throw out all information because isolated misuse has occurred. The article mentions data walls, public displays of student grades, test scores, and other private, personal information in schools. It also mentions future employers accessing personal data of current or prospective workers. Both of these cases are privacy violations, barred by federal and often state law, and they must be eliminated through proper training and oversight. But that same student information is invaluable to families and teachers and school leaders, who must ensure that all their students are on track to success in college and careers.

Helicopter parenting, stereotyping, and privacy violations all occurred before “data” was a buzzword that inspired passionate screeds for and against. There existed no utopia of American education that is being “disrupted” by innovation. Great teachers have always used information to inform their teaching, only now we have richer information than ever before. Data is simply a tool to help improve teaching and learning, and like all things in education it must be thoughtfully applied to ensure the most benefit and least harm, and so that it works for all students. But what we can’t do is turn back the clock to a time when this powerful information didn’t exist in timely, useful ways. When students, parents, educators, and policymakers have the right information to make decisions, students excel.