“Speak roughly to your little boy
and beat him when he sneezes
he only does it to annoy
because he knows it teases.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The word “data” has invaded my teaching environment in new and un-intriguing ways over the past few years. To my mind, data is verifiable quantification of some variable over a period of time or space. Data sources I like to use in my history classes include maps—which are almost magical in packing both time and space together—and charts, which permit analysis of varied combinations of data. New on my living room wall is a map of the original Jamestown Colony, which constantly provokes new questions of relationships and consequences. Struggling with the questions that data suggests is some of the most rewarding work I do along with students. We don’t usually find the answers, but we expand our understanding and sure rack up a list of good queries to pursue!
I like data.
That side of data is not what I hear much about. Instead, teachers are asked to collect “data” on student achievement in their classroom in order to “improve instruction.” Districts need data! Are students up to standard? Did you use the Common Formative Assessment that your district Committee to Forestall Creativity and Professional Judgment created to go along with the Uncommonly Boring State Standards that were produced by a Secret Committee for Undemocratic Mandates? Since teachers must provide “data” to prove that students who don’t care about standards are mastering standards teachers did not choose to create or abide by, a “smart teacher” creates goals that are almost impossible not to achieve, or simply alters the data to suit. Data is no longer a tool of informed judgment, but a means of quantifiable coercion. Data “speaks roughly” to us in the tones of Duchess Michelle Rhee rather than conversing with us as Socrates might.
The surreal feeling of participation in a system that corrupts the meaning and use of data not only prompts alienation of teachers from their occupation, but also incites self-loathing. Somehow, teachers know that collecting data for an end of the year summary evaluation meeting has limited relevance to the development of student ability to participate effectively as an individual in a democracy. If you are compiling a stack of “evidence,” you sure aren’t talking with students, or working alongside them as meaningful, productive data is pored over. Data can lead us to greater interaction and thoughtful engagement in the process of learning, or it can limit our scope to one or two measurements, chosen a priori. Data becomes dada, because the natural and dynamic quality of data has become an obstacle to education.
I love the absurd and participate in it daily with gusto, but a system that is supposed to have serious merit should not be based on a preposterous notion. It is definitely absurd to think that persons drawn to a humanistic endeavor like teaching would value the reductionist quantification of learning this notion of data represents. Absurdity ought to make me laugh. This absurdity makes me wince, and every administrator doing their final evaluation meetings ought to cringe with embarrassment if they are focusing on numbers rather than the professional judgments that stem from them.
The true purpose of this system is to transfer students to a system where achievement can be thoroughly quantified and “individualized,” with those poor learners all becoming perfect replicas without blemish—of a systematically neutered blandishment. Machines do this sort of thing better and better, and do it without internal conflict. Computers collect data faster and more accurately than any human, and apply it without concern for irrelevant factors like, say, whether the learner had breakfast or a parental hug before school.
Data—Dada—Dodo. The extinction of teachers as a species is inevitable if we do not contest the perception of data as the final arbiter of educational excellence. I believe teachers will speak up to demand attention to the un-quantified and undervalued professional judgments that are necessary to a rounded educational experience and which do not exist without human interaction.
I may be a dinosaur, but nobody’s diggin’ my bones yet.
© David Sudmeier, 2014