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4. Big Data hates little data. Data has always been gathered by teachers, and it has always informed their instruction. Teachers give assignments and grade them–not because they like to grade, but because they want their students and themselves to see whether or not students are learning the material. But Big Data isn’t apparently interested in this arrangement, never mind that some studies have demonstrated that “high school GPA is ‘the best single predictor’” of college success. Big Data–and the people behind it–appear to dismiss the trustworthiness of the classroom teacher. Maybe because–for some Big Data adherents, anyway–there is no way to monetize teacher grading. For others, it’s probably driven by a general disdain for the quality of America’s teaching corps. The upshot is that each teacher needs a set of standards or presumably he or she will teach 180 days worth of lessons about coloring or dinosaurs. Defenders of the standards often exasperatedly say things like, “But teachers need to know what needs to be taught each year, and what has been taught the year before and will be taught the next year.” Instruction must be aligned. And this is true, but teachers are smart enough to know–because they’ve all seen this movie–that standards have trouble stopping at “informing instruction,” despite protestations to the contrary. The standards are often followed closely behind with canned lessons and scripted curricula. Teachers in many schools–particularly those that struggle with low test scores–will be instructed to “say this on this day.” For quality control purposes, one could assume. Many school leaders will resist this type of silliness of course, but many won’t. The data gathered at the local level, like teaching choices made there, is likely seen as suspect. Test scores are the holy grail, the mandatory “objective measure,” because locally-developed data is subjective and controlled by teachers. If our religion of reform is built on a foundation of mistrust regarding the efficacy and quality of our teachers, we must avoid attaching too much weight to the data they generate and handle. We have taken it on faith that they are self-interested and will twist the data to serve their own careerist purposes. For this reason, calls for multiple measures in making judgments about school quality tie reformers in knots–there are limited “objective measures” available that completely disempower local educators and keep their hands off the controls. To get a truly broad array of multiple measures informing our system of gauging student progress, we will have to let teachers’ data count.

More thoughts later on rules that should drive data so that data doesn’t drive us. Like Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws for Robotics, we need an overarching moral document to police the Wild West of Big Data, or else abuse and destructiveness will win the day.

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His...

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