The Tyranny of the Datum

About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

Data is a big deal. A great deal of innovation is happening right now in the field of data collection, storage, and management in the field of education. There are some well-documented fears among parents and teachers regarding these trends. Who will control the data? How will the data be used? Will my child’s data be protected? The worst-case scenarios–data misuse, hacking, data misrepresentation, a great sabotage of American schools–are downright terrifying.

Some education watchers and commenters, meanwhile, are enthusiastic supporters of a more data-informed future in our schools. They note the promise of more effective daily practice informed by accurate and timely information about student performance–more data than ever before is available, as are technological tools far more powerful than ever before, placed in the hands of educators. The best-case scenarios–individualized highly-effective remediation, personalized educational experiences, de-tracking and de-grading students, a great flourishing in American schools–are dizzying in their hopeful promise.

There is a great deal of conversation that occurs online about the various particulars surrounding educational data. Like much educational discourse in social media, it is fascinating, if occasionally (or often) strident.

It goes without saying that data is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, human history is decorated with moments wherein men and women made astounding discoveries on the basis of their analysis of extant data. From Madame Curie to Einstein to George Washington Carver–and outside of science too, in worlds as diverse as music and gastronomy and exploration–the greats have always relied on information they had access to when making their discoveries. Data is the raw material for effective decision-making. If you know there is an iceberg ahead soon enough, the Titanic doesn’t sink.

Data should indeed inform decisions. And, indeed, educators need data at their fingertips.

But data should come with some serious warnings, and we’ve seen just how bad things can get in education. The way I see it, there are at least 4 major dangers when it comes to data.

1. While data (plural) should inform, each datum wants to rule alone. In an America that is uncomfortable with nuance, we have two dominant political parties, two dominant soda brands, and so on. We like to reduce things to manageable-if-extremely-imprecise chunks. As such, a single datum such as a Standardized Test Score–like the ring in The Lord of the Rings–invariably wants to take over. Data-informed quickly gives way to data-driven, and then data-driven gives way to datum-blinded. And that is, in my opinion at least, where we live today.

Click here for danger number two.

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About the Author:

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

2 Comments

  1. […] promised in a recent post called The Tyranny of the Datum to write about some guiding standards for appropriate data usage, in the spirit of Isaac […]

  2. […] In our case, “it” became data and a desire to see how kids were performing. It has quickly spun out of control , and in the case of Tennessee, it has led to us currently conducting tests that we have […]

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