Does Data Make Us Dumber?

Anyone who knows me can attest that I love data.  I can’t get enough of it.  I love numbers . I find data intriguing to the point of obsession.  Right now I can tell you that 43% of Americans want the Federal Government more involved in education with 56% of parents wanting more involvement (Gallup), the average American spends about 38 days of their life brushing their teeth and classes at my school spend about 10 school days per year on bathroom breaks. I have acquired nicknames from friends and colleagues such as “Graph Man” and “Chart Boy.”  Enough said.

In addition to having an interest in the numbers themselves, what I find  even more interesting is how data can be manipulated and how it can be misleading if used out of context.  In a poll for example, the results can easily be manipulated by simply framing the question in a certain way.  With assessment data, you can manipulate the format of the reporting depending upon the outcome you want.   With research data, a company can base the effectiveness of the product they want to sell on a certain sample size or chosen group of people.

Numbers can’t lie. They can’t tell the truth either.  They are just numbers.  People still have to think.  When used with caution numbers can guide us and help make us more effective communicators, teachers and learners.  When we try to assign numbers to things that are not measurable or when used solely without thought or used haphazardly numbers can, I would argue, make us look foolish.

Numbers are foolishly being used in schools across America to unofficially label students.  And believe me, in education, once you have a label it is very difficult to get rid of and if you can’t get rid of it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Year after year.  Teacher after teacher.  “Look at those scores. This student can’t learn.”  “They are so low.”  “My whole class is below basic.” “They shouldn’t be in this class.” “How can I possibly teach someone that low.”  “How can they possibly be in grade __ .  They can’t even _____”  “They shouldn’t be in this grade, they just came from [insert country here].” “They don’t even know ____”  These numbers were supposed to help teachers identify the needs of students so teachers could take them from where they are and move them to their fullest potential.  They were not supposed to be reasons for why students couldn’t be taught.

Let me repeat, numbers don’t lie or tell the truth.  What is hindering education today is not the numbers, not the data but the mindset of “me,” the attitude of “can’t” and the work ethic of “don’t want to”  that exists in some classrooms in every school today.  Instead of “what ever it takes” it is “I don’t have time to.” Instead of “What can I do?” it is “Someone needs to.”  It is true that it is not like this in all classrooms.  But just as a label can become a self- fulfilling prophecy for a student the selfishness, negative attitude and poor work ethic of a few teachers can and does infect the whole school.

So let’s not be data dumb. Use data with caution. Children are people, not budgets, batting averages or burgers.   They are all different.  Our job is to teach all students from where ever they come.  Our job is to meet student needs whatever they are.  Period.  So when you hear an educator making an excuse, do not let it go.  Challenge it.  Make it clear to them that teachers can teach all students and that all students can learn.

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

4 Responses to “Does Data Make Us Dumber?”

  1. Data Guy,
    This is an outstanding reminder of why we can’t succumb to becoming data-driven so much as we ACT in data-informed ways. So many times we’re suffocated in data, only to fail to develop strategies for meeting students’ needs (identified through careful, meaningful analysis of the data). Great reminder to us all that we need to make the extra efforts and keep doing what’s best for kids!

  2. I agree with your thoughts about how “numbers are foolishly being used in schools across America to unofficially label students.” They are also being labeled by our states on our standardized test reports when students’ scores are reported in subgroups.
    I think you hit the nail on the head when you stated, “the selfishness, negative attitude and poor work ethic of a few teachers can and does infect the whole school.” It’s a tough club to override in a school. It takes persons of character to look at the scores and say, “Here’s what our weaknesses are. Now what are we going to do about it?”

  3. rob ackerman Says:

    great insight- adults need to focus on what they can control

  4. I agree with your commentary on the misused and misguided aspect of data. The statement “…numbers can’t lie. They can’t tell the truth either” provacative and true. We often use them in one of these two ways though to promote an agenda. Leadership should not try to control the classroom teacher because of data, as is often the case, but should allow the teacher to assume responsibility. The teacher is best able to recognize the studetn need and determine the correct action in order to reach the objective oi student success. Thanks for the post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: