Beware of Geeks Bearing Formulas: Is the Rush to Data the “New Stupid,?” Education Must Begin With Kids and Teachers.


It’s hard to believe that Obama has been in office for a mere forty days …  the passage of the stimulus package, his inaugural address and his not quite State of the Union address, and, the gleaming Republican knives being honed. A political maelstrom is spinning about us.
A tumbling stock market and dire warning after dire warning have gulped up the air … another major announcement, or two, every single day, from the economy, to foreign policy, a true whirlwind.
On the education front we see immediate good news, and, from my perspective, long term bad news. The stimulus package plugs the leaking educational dikes and prevents, or, sharply diminishes potential layoffs, however, the priorities Obama set in his Tuesday night speech were troubling: accountability, charter schools, data and national standards. His key White Advisor is Bob Gordon, a former advisor to Klein, and, the author of the New York City Weighted Student Funding plan. Gordon has written widely re teacher effectiveness and stands in direct opposition to teacher unions.
    We propose federal support to help states measure the effectiveness of individual teachers – based on their impact on student achievement, subjective evaluations by principals and peers, and parent evaluations. States would be given considerable discretion to develop their own measures, as long as student achievement impact (using so-called “value-added” measures) are a key component. The federal government would pay bonuses to highly rated teachers willing to teach in high poverty schools.
Gordon and his co-authors go on to argue that teacher ” …effectiveness over the long-term can be predicted quite well by teachers’ student achievement results in their first few years on the job. The implication, they argued, was that the doors should be thrown open to lots more potential teacher candidates (through alternative certification and the like), and then the lowest-performing newbies (as measured by student achievement results) should be let go before they get tenure.”
The core of the Obama educational proposal would appear to be that other four-letter word, data.
The Data Quality Campaign (DQC)  argues for systems to
  • improve the collection, availability, and use of high-quality education data, and
  • implement state longitudinal data systems to improve student achievement
    On March 10th Arne Duncan will be the keynote at a DQC sponsored symposia.
    Frederich Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and no friend of teacher unions, warns that the headlong rush into “data-driven” education reform policy initiatives  may be the “New Stupid.”
    Using data alone may tell you how students are doing: does data “…enable an organization to diagnose problems or management improvement?” 
    Hess proffers
    Data-driven management should not simply identify effective teachers or struggling students but should also help render schools and school systems more supportive of effective teaching and learning. Doing so requires tracking an array of indicators, such as how long it takes books and materials to be shipped to classrooms, whether schools provide students with accurate and appropriate schedules in a timely fashion, how quickly assessment data are returned to schools, and how often the data are used. A system in which leaders possess that kind of data is far better equipped to boost school performance than one in which leaders have a palette of achievement data and little else.
    We shouldn’t forget that the major banks and brokerages were also “data-driven,” they were wedded to a risk management system, called Value at Risk (VaR).
    … one reason VaR became so popular is that it is the only commonly used risk measure that can be applied to just about any asset class. And it takes into account a head-spinning variety of variables, including diversification, leverage and volatility, that make up the kind of market risk that traders and firms face every day.
    In spite of this highly sophisticated tool, the investment galaxy crashed, one day VaR was totally relied upon as a foolproof measure of daily risk management, the next the investment world was in disarray and free fall.
    The current NYC Department of Education is a prime example of data as the “New Stupid.” ARIS, a  student data warehouse costs $85 million, another system, being designed by Maximus, designed for storing Special Education data has price tag of $78 million. The Office of Accountability, that drives the Quality Review and School Progress Reports employs 100 employees, and the Department is expanding the Teacher Data Initiative … more than $200 millions, and what impact on the classroom?
    Is there any evidence that the regular use of student data improves achievement?
    Does the DOE track ARIS logons and compare to student progress by teacher?
    On a local level we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on top down data systems, without any evidence of their impact, and, I fear the dollars will spiral into the billions on the national level.
    To quote Warren Buffet, in a letter to his shareholders,
    Too often … American have been enamored of ‘a nerdy-sounding priesthood, using esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like.’… Some skepticism about these models is overdue,’ he added. ‘Our advise: Beware of geeks bearing formulas.’

    3 responses to “Beware of Geeks Bearing Formulas: Is the Rush to Data the “New Stupid,?” Education Must Begin With Kids and Teachers.

    1. Paul A. Moore

      One of the corporate wrecking balls brought down on America’s public schools is “data driven” education. The charade is a creation of the Business Roundtable and other forces that dream of a privatized school system that better serves their global profit making schemes.

      Because their sinister intentions must be kept on the down low, data driven education is packaged and sold as revolutionary pedagogy come to the classroom. Absurdity is the inevitable result. And so it is that our system of universal public education is now captured in a scene from Woody Allen’s farce Bananas. The faux-revolutionaries have decreed that, “From this day on the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16-years-old are now…16-years-old!”

      Promoting insanity in the classroom has proven to be quite an effective weapon of public school destruction. Teachers are being broken down and driven away in unprecedented numbers. One in five new teachers will not make it through their first year. Half of them will be gone inside of five years.

      In still sane sectors of our society data is collected on a rational basis. The U.S. Census Bureau gathers data on population, infant mortality, life expectancy, health insurance and the distribution of wealth for the sake of a more effective government. In a sector of our society targeted for demoralization and destruction, data is collected for data’s sake. There is no earthly reason for most of the information teachers are now being ordered to collect and analyze through incessant testing of students. If the Census Bureau was put on the same footing they would be checking underwear every half hour.

      Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is a high ranking leader of the corporate assault on public schools, right up there with Michael R. Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Family. Jeb Bush is not just a friend of big business; he is a big business! One of his wholly-owned subsidiaries is brother Neil Bush and Ignite! Learning. Ignite is a software company that “helps” students prepare for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) with “portable learning centers” at $3,000 per kid. The business has contracts in 13 Florida school districts.

      Evidence suggests that FCAT scores were manipulated and artificially inflated during Jeb Bush’s final year in office. Bush was apparently going to barnstorm with Mayor Bloomberg and run as the “education governor” for the White House. Big brother has poisoned that well for the time being but there was speculation over another possible career path for Jeb.

      Imagine if Jeb Bush had been tapped by National Football League owners rather than Roger Goodell as the league’s commissioner. The new commissioner might have applied his education philosophy to the NFL. Certainly the players would be more effective if they spent less time on the practice field and in the weight room and more time being tested daily in the 40-yard dash, shuttle run, vertical leap and bench press. Less time practicing football plays and more time being tested on the playbook.

      Okay, even Jeb Bush would never apply such silly rules to the NFL. But what if President Bush had named his brother to his Cabinet? As Secretary of Agriculture, Jeb Bush would surely have ordered the nation’s livestock weighed every few hours even if it did cut into their feeding time.


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