A Better Conversation Around Data Use in California



By 05/26/2011

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California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent proposal to kill funding for California’s troubled longitudinal data system is sparking a renewed debate about the value of data among California policymakers and practitioners.

To be sure, CALPADS, the California system, has a poor track record. It’s an over-budget, not fully functional project that even if flawlessly executed, was going to be constrained by it’s too-narrow focus on accountability data and hampered by the state’s often counter-productive laws around unfunded state mandates (good case study background here). And, it suffers from many of the flaws in other state systems. Historically, the collection of data has been top-down, designed almost exclusively to show compliance with state and federal regulations. Data quality and usefulness are often questionable, leaving many state data systems function as de facto data morgues — used more often in autopsies of failed programs than to help educators and policymakers improve existing ones. Many policymakers and educators are heeding these lessons and taking new approaches in states such as Texas and Illinois, districts, and across consortia of schools.

But, in California, the current dichotomous debate is preventing more nuanced discussions of how and why the state can better use data to improve instruction. In particular, I was disappointed by educator and influential blogger Anthony Cody’s response on the TOP-Ed blog. Rather than using this opportunity to develop a new vision of how the state data system could be more useful across California’s vastly different 1,000+ districts, Cody reinforces the testing lens that he despises by limiting his perspective on data use to this frame. Thus, he offers only a false choice between using data and supporting outstanding teaching:

We do not need CALPADS. We already have far too much money, time, and energy spent on student performance on tests…

We have placed far too much faith in data systems, and far too little in the capacity of our teachers and students in responding to the learning challenges they face. California is a huge and diverse state. We can tap the creative potential of our teachers best when we actively engage them in designing curricula and assessments that correspond to the interests and needs of their students. There is so much phony rhetoric about how important and precious teachers are. It is time to give teachers real responsibility – not just for preparing students for tests, but for the complex challenge of life in the 21st century.

Life in the 21st century increasingly revolves around data and information. As I wrote in our study of data use in New York City, we need to move beyond either/or dichotomies that pit classroom information against district or statewide data:

…[for teachers] the most relevant data is that which is closely aligned with the teacher’s curriculum—quizzes, homework assignments, feedback on writing, and the like. But, because it varies so widely across classrooms, this micro-level data is usually not included in the accountability programs that states use to compare school performance. This is despite the fact that microlevel data is critical to improving day-to-day student performance, says Beverly Donohue, vice president of policy and research at New Visions for Public Schools, a school support organization responsible for working with 76 of the district’s public schools. The issue, Donohue says, “is not accountability versus microlevel student data.” Both types of data are valuable, but serve different purposes.

There’s no doubt that too many state data systems have over-promised and under-delivered. And, local data and usefulness has often been overlooked. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Better information can help inform and improve instruction, family engagement, connections across schools and community organizations, school improvement, and yes, enable more accurate, multiple measures of school performance.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to make data useful, and voices like Cody’s could be immensely useful in ensuring that the rhetoric about data use meets the reality. But, both Cody and those he opposes will have to move beyond the current reform/anti-reform frame if we hope to engage in new, more productive discussions.

- Bill Tucker

PS — Larry Cuban writes about this also. He’s on solid ground when he writes about the dissonance that teachers encounter when they attempt to reconcile clumsy and non-useful data systems with the data that they generate in their own classrooms. His explanations of why data and evidence are not always appropriate, valued, and used are informative. But, Cuban, in his efforts to explain why actions occur, too often overlooks the tragic consequences of these systems. For example, in his post about evidence based medicine, he describes how doctors also resist the use of evidence, but fails to note the costs of these actions — in this case, the thousands of deaths and unnecessary medical complications caused by over-reliance on intuition. And, he misses what really are significant and groundbreaking changes that data is increasingly enabling in health and other fields, such as science.




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