5 Replies to “The Data Wars…”

  1. This is a huge issue. Tens of thousands of teachers need access to good information about students to make sound decisions about how to work with them. It’s akin to the need that doctors have about patient history.

    I would expect that the onus would be on the professionals who misuse the data not on the state that makes the patient history searchable and usable to the professionals.

    The potential exists to misuse information about how students perform on various tests and how their IEP teams contend with their disabilities. I would expect that the person or institution who misuses the data would be punished, rather than the institution that makes it possible and easy to use the data to improve the education of the same student.

    I’d compare it to the Googlization of medical records. While few of us want everybody to know about our health issues almost all of us want our records to be easily accessed by our doctors and emergency room attendants. Let’s be careful about banning the good organization of data.

  2. What is so hard about anonymizing data? Access to data should be open and access to personal information should be gated.

    The issue is being brought up in education committee, but is a cultural one that applies to all citizens.

  3. In response to Bob Lee: I’m not aware of any research showing that teacher access to the type of student data in question has any (positive) effect on teaching or student performance. It’s certainly not clear that there’s any theoretical basis for assuming that type of access would produce real improvements, though there’s mounting evidence that the focus on data-driven teaching is harming rather than helping.

    Legally speaking, the holders of patient data are the ones responsible for ensuring the data is used properly. That includes ensuring that mode of access doesn’t unnecessarily expose the data to possible misuse, as well as ensuring that users have been trained in and agree to specific patient protections.

    In response to both Bobs: There are two major challenges in making this data available in a responsible way. The first is a human challenge. Namely, sensitive data are protected only as well as the people involved are capable of protecting it. As a project evaluator, I’ve walked into a school office and asked for specific data needed to identify students on a standardized assessment teachers administered for the project. The secretary printed out a master file of every student in the school that included name, SSN, school ID, state student ID, address, school lunch status, and course schedule. Legislation can impose penalties for that type of problem, but it can’t prevent it.

    The second challenge is that truly anonymized data are next to worthless. The choice is between data protection and usability, and each system represents a point on the continuum between the extremes.

    The balance between protection and usability is always determined by the value of the information. In this case, the value of the information we’re talking about is almost exclusively limited to evaluating progress toward unobtainable (and unhelpful) goals under NCLB. But since the government is determined to see NCLB through to its tragic end, the decision will almost certainly be in favor of usability over protection. And that’s going to have lasting consequences for today’s students.

  4. Bryan, fair, but dangerous point. If teachers are not able or capable of making use of data about the students they teach then why bother giving it to them.
    If even some teachers are able to comprehend, synthesize and adapt to patterns in data then I’m right.
    It’s an open question, but I want my childrens teachers to have more, rather than less data to work with, just in case they are able to make use of it.

  5. Bob, I agree with you that teachers should have access to data about their students’ performance, even though claims about the value of these data are possibly (probably?) exaggerated. But in most states teachers do have access to these data even when it’s not available to the public at large. So there are ways to maintain privacy while providing limited access, say for teachers of specific students.

    But I think I’d have to disagree with the “more data are better” position. The trend toward more data has not improved teaching, learning, or outcomes in the vast majority of schools unless the sole outcome of interest is scores on the state exams–and across the board, increases in that metric are largely artificial.

    Ask your children’s teachers what they want. I’d be surprised if any of them say they want more data to help them make decisions about what to do in the classroom. The teachers I’ve asked say they want the whole standards-based and data-driven nightmare to go away so they can get back to the business of teaching. Teachers have always had access to student performance data–that’s what regular classroom tests and assignments provide.

    If we could find a way to 1) institute rigorous national standards, 2) utilize rigorous and appropriate national assessments, 3) get past this idea of having to improve student achievement year over year, and 4) decouple the student assessments from punitive measures, then data may be worth something. But as long as the emphasis is on reaching an unrealistic goal with severe punishments for failure (or even maintaining performance), states are going to distort the standards, assessments, and cutpoints to avoid punishment, and districts are going to distort the educational program to give the appearance of progress and avoid punishment.

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