"Data Driven Instruction"

Mark Naison, a tireless proponent of common sense in education and politics, has reminded me of the Orwellian aspects of “Data Driven Instruction.” He writes:

Anyone who thinks this approach is going to improve the quality of instruction, and create better relationships between teachers, students and parents, is sorely mistaken. It will increase the stress level on all concerned and squeeze out compassion, empathy and community building along with creative instruction. But the school reformers don’t care. They are determined to bring a “business atmosphere” into public education, with teachers poring over test scores the way executives pore over sales data!

That’s only the consequence. There’s also the internal nonsense of the phrase itself.

As one website describes it, “Data Driven Instruction”:

emphasizes frequent testing and focused attention on what the children are actually learning allows educators to effectively and realistically pinpoint, assess and remedy weaknesses and reinforce success.

The assumptions here are as dangerous as they are mind-boggling (to say nothing of the grammar–but we all err in that, sometimes). There’s the assumption that frequent testing is a good thing, that testing can tell us what students are “actually learning,” that testing provides useful information, that testing leads to success. None of these things is true, but we’ve been conditioned to believe all of them in an Orwellian bombardment of misinformation masked by false equivalencies (“war is peace”).

The basis of the problem here is the assumption that testing is an effective measure of learning. However, I have yet to see that really important first step, discussion of just how a test gives useful information. Hell, the fact of being a test means nothing: tests can be designed so that any one of us fails–or any particular group among us succeeds. Most tests are designed to do no more than show a temporary mastery of a particular set of “facts.” That’s no way of evaluating education.

“Learning” is not something that can be assessed through testing alone, for testing is a tool of limited utility. It is a tool, yes, but it cannot be the only one.

Neither can “data” be the sole judge of effective instruction. Much of learning only becomes apparent years after it has taken place. Immediate assessment, the provenance of educational data, covers only one small part of real education. Reliance on assessment data alone (or even primarily) limits education. In fact, it debases it. Certainly, it does not enhance it.

GIGO–Garbage In, Garbage Out. What we are asking students to produce on tests is garbage–if it is considered a sign of the effectiveness of education. Not only is testing necessarily backward-looking, but it is reductive. You can’t test the future; you can’t reduce learning to Scantron sheets.