Monday, February 28, 2011

Student Data and Child Exploitation #edchat #edreform

Michel Foucault. This is Not a Pipe (1968)
I came into work this morning and immediately became dismayed, which is a feeling that I cannot seem to shake as I write this. I work with many different schools in my role as a technology integration specialist both as a full-time position and on a contractual basis. I see my role not as a technology trainer, which is a confusion many people have about TISs based on years of only receiving corporately sponsored training on how to use the tools districts provide, but as a guide. My role has more to do with questioning and exposing ideas than it has to do with showing people how to do things. Part of that role is helping people to expand their definition of what technology is and see both the positive and negative impacts of it. I am here just as much to turn you on to new possibilities with technology as I am to point out how you are being used by technology. This includes the invisible technologies we have in our lives, including language, curriculum, grades, and schedules.

What has me dismayed is coming into one of my schools today it was announced that the school office personnel were in the process of erecting a data wall. One of the other schools I work with did this a month ago and I still have not gotten over my disgust. This data wall contains graphs and charts showing statistics related to student test scores, discipline referrals, and other things that can be measured statistically. They draw from test scores and recorded data regarding the number of suspensions and discipline referrals have been issued over time. This coupled with the email I received this week from one of these schools that the student-use computer lab will not be available for a full month from March 5th-April 5th because of testing, testing that requires such a high level of our district's bandwidth that it renders all other computer technology in the district functionally disabled.
It turns out that we spend over 25% of the school year monopolizing district computer technology for the purpose of measuring student achievement in math, reading, writing, and science. This means that for as powerful a tool for learning the computer is, it is only available 75% of the school year. This coupled with the fact that these are not 1:1 schools and both have policies in place that do not allow students to bring and use their own tools makes the actual amount of time a student is allowed to use one of these tools for learning to be nill. And, even if these tests provided reliable and accurate results (which they don't) teachers don't get that data until it is far too late to make effective use of it in the classroom. At least the Skinner Machine gave immediate feedback. It takes the state months to report back results on standardized tests taken on computers. And, then you have the issue of whether or not the teachers have sufficient understanding of how to interpret that data to make use of it.

Like I said, this all assumes that these tests actually tell us something useful and are reliable. But, there are too many factors that taint the pool. The test cannot tell us what a kid really knows and understands if they have test anxiety. That anxiety can cripple a student taking a test and produce results that are entirely false. If a student takes the test on a day they have something overwhelmingly troublesome on their mind (a death in the family, a breakup with a boyfriend/girlfriend, a parent who has lost their job, a parent who is being sent to jail, fear related to things outside the classroom, hunger, etc.) the test results will also be unreliable. If the student takes the test and finds the questions insulting to their intelligence they are likely to blow it off. This is often why we see some otherwise bright kids turn their bubble sheets into creative pixel drawings instead of actually answering the questions. There are many reasons why data of this kind is unreliable.
Children are not the data they produce anymore than they are the poop they make when they go to the bathroom. When we are told we must focus on the data we are being told that we must all become scatologists and focus on the crap the child produces and not on the actual child. By making a "Data Wall" we are essentially spreading the crap on the walls. Such a wall, if it is erected in a school belongs near the bathrooms and ought not be displayed prominently for all to see. I find it despicable that in this drive to become "data-driven" and "accountable" that we have been forced to paint our walls with this crap.

You can only tell so much about a person from their poop. And, most sane people flush that poop down the toilet, they don't smear it on the walls.

What makes this despicable is that it objectifies children. By focusing our attention on the data they produce and using that data to drive our decisions we forget the child. It turns the child into a bunch of numbers and figures. Educators are asked to look at the data, not the child, and data can only tell us so much. There is much it doesn't measure. But, measurement is a big part of the problem. We measure because of the reification of the child's data. Through this process we convert children into an abstraction that can be measured. Once we can measure the child we can sort them. Once we have turned a child into a number (or set of numbers) we can treat them not as human beings but as things. We objectify them. And, objectification leads to exploitation. How many companies are there out there looking to make a fortune off the reification of student data? How many i3 grants did the U.S. government hand out to companies and groups to make this process scale?

How is this process of testing, measuring, and turning children into numbers any different than child pornography? Both activities objectify and exploit children. Why do we look at one form of child exploitation as disgusting and make it illegal while promoting and embracing the other? A physician may have need to see a child naked but as soon as they take pictures of that child and post them for all to see they have crossed that line. Taking questionable data and posting it on the wall about students is no different. It is objectification and exploitation.

So, what do these data walls do for us? They serve as a kind of magic mirror. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the wicked stepmother asks the mirror, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" The magic mirror is the only one who is qualified to make this assessment because the mirror deals with abstractions of reality. The mirror takes what is in the world and produces an image, an illusion of that which it sees. Through abstraction we can assign data to represent people and with this data we can sort them. The "Fairest" is an idea that can only exist in a world where we can sort and categorize and to do so the mirror must first turn it's subjects into objects.
I suppose the wicked stepmother might as well have asked who the "smartest" or "most well-behaved" was. Essentially, through the use of this data wall, that is what we are doing. We are reinforcing that centuries-old purpose of school to sort students so that we can train 20% to become managers and send 80% to go work in the mines.

Another way to look at what we are doing with student data, and one the "data wall" makes too easy a comparison for is that the data is like shadows on the cave wall in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The shadows are cast on the wall, and prisoner's in the cave are made to spend their whole lives looking at the shadows and never allowed to turn around and see what is making them. To Plato's prisoners the shadows are the real things and anyone who is freed and turned around to see what they are producing is thought to have "gone to the surface and come back without their sight" because spending time actually examining what has produced those shadows has made their ability to see the shadows for real objects worse.

I did not get into education to become a scatologist, to objectify and exploit children, or to spend my life gazing into the magic mirror sorting kids based upon some abstraction we have created of them. I don't think there are many educators who did. I also don't think this is what the public
(with the possible exception of Sandy Kress) had in mind when they began calling for accountability. This process is perverse and must stop. I am an educator because I want to help students to make the right decisions for their lives, to be happy and grow into individuals who live with a sense of purpose, appreciation, and compassion. Someone please tell me how a data wall helps us to do this.

So, as a technology integration specialist, charged with helping to show people not only how to use technology but to help them see the bigger-picture implications for the technologies they adopt I feel I have to speak up. What does this data wall lead to? What does the injection of this technology change about the environment. I think I have a pretty good idea. If the result of using this "data wall" ends up being a rise in test scores it may be a Pyrrhic Victory. Will we then lay claim to say that, "The operation was successful but the patient still died?" Chances are though, we will not see any significant change in test scores because by focusing on them we have ignored the children that produce them.

1 comment:

Ron Amundson said...

Wow, lots of interesting things to comment on...

Wowzers, Its gotta be some really bad software, unless the students are submitting something like video portfolios. Most assuredly something is very much amiss if such is just the background materials and question generation. Gosh, I sure hope I am wrong on this.

What use is the testing if feedback is not timely? I could see a few hours, maybe a day at best. Beyond a week or two, what use is the data, other than for political purposes?

I had assumed that the reports back would include comprehensive analysis. Most assuredly with the volume of tests done today, it would be relatively easy to sort out test anxiety, as well as cultural/environmental aspects. Egads, we were able to do such albeit somewhat crudely in 1985 with much smaller datasets. Granted, math and science geeks love to play with "live" data.

If a test insults a students intelligence, and they did not have a creative comeback, I would seriously wonder about whether they were indoctrinated or educated.

Agreed with the child exploitation thing... it really is a perversion when one thinks about it.