Saturday, April 17, 2010

Canary in the Data Mine

Bill Ferriter has a great post on the frustration many teachers currently feel with the "data-driven" instruction movement. While it looks good on paper, this approach has caused no small amount of consternation due to its often hasty and unrealistic implementation. Ferriter writes that while he agrees in principle with data-informed instruction, and recognizes its obvious importance, he argues that for it to be effective teachers need to be given the adequate resources. He asks what a fortune 500 company would look like if asked to operate like a school:
Imagine the consequences if we translated these data management and evaluation procedures to large corporations like Wal-Mart, whose data expertise has been well-documented in the last decade.
  • Instead of automatically tracking purchases by demographic category and geographic region, cashiers would keep a clipboard next to their registers and make tallies after each sale.
  • Instead of monitoring inventory through shared databases accessed by suppliers, warehouse managers would place new orders after counting each item, going through cashier tally sheets, and calling dozens of distributors directly.
  • Instead of using GPS technology to maximize the efficiency of the routes taken by delivery trucks, drivers would be given road atlases and sent on their way.
  • And instead of using radio frequency identification microchips to digitally monitor the expiration dates and storage conditions of grocery products, stock boys would carry notepads, manually recording lists of items in need of quick sale or replacement.

The thing to remember too is that the whole impetus driving this is concentrations of failure; i.e. poor schools.  So in schools where student improvement is most crucial, it is going to be the most difficult to implement; there are just so many more pulls on the teacher's time.  Whether it is dealing with discipline issues, calling home, doing more fundraising or working with limited resources - everything just consumes more time.

The greatest irony to me, in sitting through mandated data-collection meetings that sometimes stretched on for hours, was that it was actively taking up time that could have been spent actually looking at real data!  Troubled schools simply need more resources - smaller classes, more aids, more resources period. 

If we are really going to try and effect change based on targeted populations of low achievement, we need to provide the resources to actually do it.  Half-measures like these that sound good on paper, but aren't given the support required, end up having a net negative effect because they are impossible to adequately implement.  To the extent that resources are unavailable to implement data-analysis regimens, they need to at least be done from a teacher-based perspective that is both reasonable and effective.

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