President's Corner Page 47
Data Use With Insight and
BY BENNY L. GOODEN
W. Edwards Deming’s quotation “In God we trust; all others must bring data” seems to be the mantra of those who would reform public education — including many inside the education community. Yet the fond embrace of volumes of data that schools collect, store and manipulate actually may be a defense mechanism to counteract a plethora of competing change agendas and to thwart those who promote them.
In elevating all manner of data to the education equivalent of the Holy Grail, we may be falling into the trap that Albert Einstein contemplated when he wrote, “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.”
Using data to guide instruction is important if our schools are to maintain a clear focus upon goals and if we are to use the limited instructional time to maximum advantage. Educators are confronted with a virtual deluge of data that can be used to dissect every aspect of student performance, individually and in groups. Unfortunately, the advantages of using data to guide instruction often are lost through the mandated testing processes.
These testing protocols were designed with many purposes, but the data these tests produce often do not provide immediate assistance to those educators who are most directly involved in student instruction — the teachers. If these reams of data are used primarily to identify schools and teachers whose performance misses a target, it is a near certainty that the results of high-stakes state tests will not guide instruction leading to better student performance.
Fortunately, many school districts have purchased or developed additional tools that provide timely and prescriptive data teachers can use to target specific skills individual students lack. These are data about which teachers and principals can feel a sense of ownership and that will help promote teaching modifications to actually improve student performance. Annual state tests are little more than educational “autopsies” that present results after the window of opportunity for meaningful instructional change has passed. The deficiencies are exacerbated when these test results are used to judge the relative merit of teachers.
Will the Common Core State Standards and the new wave of assessments bring better data to guide instruction? Only time will tell. However, whatever educators’ positions regarding the CCSS and the way students will be assessed, educators must demand a system of testing and data management that actually gives schools and teachers timely data they can use to inform instruction and to improve student achievement. Using these costly tests to determine which school or teacher to shame is a poor use of resources.
In addition to informing instruction, another key use of data must be to advise educators and decision makers about policy. In this realm, Einstein’s succinctly stated wisdom and insight are ever so important. Sometimes data regarding the efficacy of a policy or practice are used to prove its validity when perfectly sound reasons exist to disregard the practice using other data as evidence.
Proclamations that practices are research-based and well-grounded in data often are accepted as ringing endorsements that herald great success. Unfortunately, these are but empty promises if careful and critical analysis of data are not applied. In a consumer environment, let the buyer beware.
One element frequently lacking in our fascination with data is the integrity to admit that our biases for or against some methodology or program are not always supported by credible data. As good school leaders, we must keep an open mind as we analyze volumes of data while deciding how to invest scarce resources. Taxpayers and the public are counting on us to use these resources wisely to improve student performance. More importantly, students deserve our best data-driven decisions as we help them achieve their dreams.
Benny Gooden is AASA president for 2012-13. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org