Education data: News roundup on ethics, potential and risks of classroom use

As the use of education data becomes less of an anomaly and more of an expectation in classrooms nationwide, conversation around the topic is shifting—away from whether to use it, and toward more nuance about when and how to use it to improve kids’ outcomes. In the past few days, we’ve seen an interesting trio of stories about the ethics, risks and potential raised by new capacities:

  1. What Are the Risks in Using Data to Predict Student Outcome?” In this piece, blogger and education writer Annie Murphy Paul explores the “danger… that people who struggle early on will be written off too soon, before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves,” noting that  “ignoring these super-early warning signs also carries risks. That’s because small initial differences have a way of snowballing into bigger ones over time.”
  2. In “Good Read: Will the Wrong Kind of Data Further Marginalize Students?” MindShift’s Tina Barseghian highlights an interview with the leader of an MIT research group best known for creating Scratch, a computer program that allows kids to move chunks of code around to create interactive games, animations and stories.  “I think there’s a real risk, that we as a society, are going to end up giving too much privilege to the types of knowledge and the types of activity that are most easily evaluated and assessed computationally,” says Mitch Resnick in an interview with Jill Barshay (originally posted on The Hechinger Report).
  3. The final post, “Parent’s Perspective: We’ve Been ‘Warned’!” is by Nicole Bucka. The mother of two children with special needs, Bucka offers a counterpoint to those explored by the other, more cautionary posts. She echoes the point that gaps grow larger and more difficult to address as children “get older and move through the grades.” But she also cites the potential to use data to intervene early as a reason for hope—and a call to action. Toward the end of her post, she calls on parents to…

…advocate for change. We need to push harder, we need to advocate for our children and to make sure the future is optimized for each and every one of them, so for each “intervention”, we need to ask “Where is the data?”  “Did you evaluate if it worked?”  “How will we progress monitor to ensure it is working?” and “How can we make this more proactive in the future?”

So where do we go from here?  How do we improve?  Parents, what do we want to see?  I will tell you this, when you look at how to close the gap for students [the recommendation won’t be]  “add an extra class” or “give Special Ed an extra period to tutor”, it will [be]:  ‘a systems based approach to implementing instructional change’

The takeaway: Education data is a powerful tool, not a perfect one

What’s the upshot of these three posts? That education data isn’t a perfect barometer, and that it can, like any tool, be misused. We can misuse it by tracking kids. We can misuse it by focusing only what’s easy to measure, not on what’s most important to teach. We can fail to put in the governance policies that ensure that data is securely managed.

But we can’t and shouldn’t miss the opportunities it offers to make huge differences for all children, special needs, gifted or somewhere in the vast middle. And we must identify and act as soon as possible, since early gains and losses can have exponential repercussions over time. What does acting mean? A few things: We must expand our definitions of data,improve tools for collecting and making sense of it;  and find ways to, as Bucka rightly notes, systematically support educators with the tools, processes and time to incorporate data-driven insights into their day-to-day practice.

Any easy proposition? No. But doubtless one whose time has come.


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