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).

2. Data wants all your time and money and effort. There is a dictum that says something along the lines that the more a certain measure counts in social sciences, the more likely it is to pervert the whole process of measurement. If test scores are everything and have “high stakes,” then it is practically inevitable that end users will short-circuit the system in a single-minded effort to get good test scores. In a similar vein, I propose that the more a certain datum counts, the more time, money, and energy–all of which are limited–will be devoted to it. If the test suddenly becomes THE MEASURE, we will at length convince ourselves that it isn’t enough to test a sampling of students. We must test them all. And we will convince ourselves that it isn’t enough to test them every few years. We must test them every year, and not only that, we must test them at the beginning, middle, and end of the year, in order to see progress on the one datum that matters. Because this data, it’s the thing. It’s THE thing. Education was THE thing, but now this one tiny datum is. Data is ultimately a great and tricky usurper. We are like a hunter who once hunted deer but then got sidetracked by obsessively examining deer tracks. We became experts at deer tracks. Now we hunt deer tracks. We make molds of them. We hang them on our walls. We haven’t seen a deer in ages, and we can’t really figure out why we’re so hungry. But we have a great spreadsheet that sorts our deer track collection by circumference, regularity, and a hundred other criteria. Because deer tracks are important for finding the deer, only we kind of forgot about the deer.

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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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