The Data Agenda

When it comes to education reform, the reliance on “data” is purported to be a values-neutral statement: data has no ideology, this line of thinking goes, so its use cannot be manipulated.


Two important articles – one very long, the other less so – illuminate the lie at work in this proposition.  First, the Atlantic looks at Philadelphia’s textbook allocations.  Textbooks – logistics – are an easy and appropriate place to use data; how many books does a district have?  A school?  Are the books sufficient for the number of students? Have new books been ordered? – etc.  These are straightforward uses of data to help a large organization run more efficiently and effectively.


But that’s not where data is being deployed.  Textbook-less students and, especially, teachers instead face data as a measure of their achievement and worth.  The New Yorker’s lengthy examination of the cheating scandal in Atlanta tells the story of a teacher devoted enough to his low-income students that he did kids’ laundry for them – but who was brought down by bureaucratic pressure to conform to data-driven expectations.  Simply put: it is a tragedy, and a fucking waste, and it is not by accident.



Why is data so misused in education – absent where it is most desperately needed, and omnipresent where it is actively and pervasively harming both students and teachers?  Well, maybe it is because – as the first sentence of this article states – America hates teachers.  It’s not a polemical statement by a teacher: it’s a historical assessment by an education historian.  And to know the history of the American relationship to our teachers should make all of us suspect any kind of “reform” that puts teachers at its center.


And hey, maybe if we tracked the data on whether or not they had the textbooks they needed, that’d solve the damn problem.

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