As noted in many previous posts, public schools have been collecting massive amounts of data on individual students for decades… data that has been stored in stuffed file folders and various generations of microfiche and computer formats. This inconvenient and inconsistent method of data collection made it impossible to use group data to determine the effectiveness of teaching methods, to track an individual student’s learning, or to do systematic research in education.
The advent of cloud storage, the adoption of uniform learning standards, and the extensive use of standardized tests makes it possible to gather and analyze data systematically. This should be nothing but good news for teachers and parents… but as we’ve seen with the NSA, data collection has a dark side as well. Recent articles in the NYTimes and Atlantic describe the dilemma researchers and practitioners face in making use of the data that is now available: the reluctance of parents to have information about their children stored on line.
The Times article, “When Guarding Student Data Endangers Valuable Research” looks at the Data Dilemma from the research angle. As the writer Susan Dynarski notes, the data gathered is invaluable:
Educators parse this data to understand what is working in their schools. Advocates plumb the data to expose unfair disparities in test scores and graduation rates, building cases to target more resources for the poor. Researchers rely on this data when measuring the effectiveness of education interventions.
Noting that despite the fact that no one has hacked into the student data and despite the fact the student data is not a likely target for marketers, many legislators are proposing laws that would hamstring the efforts of researchers to draw on the data to gain a better understanding of what works and the efforts of teachers to use the data to personalize instruction. To use a phrase of one of my colleagues in Maryland, the legislators are using a shotgun to kill a mosquito. Her solution to this is to provide the Department of Education with the ability “…to impose serious penalties on districts and states as soon as they are found to have violated privacy regulations” noting that “…the states, districts and the courts then need to do the hard work of enforcing laws that protect student privacy.” A noble idea, but a non-starter in Congress who, even if they passed such a law to pacify indignant parents, would fail to provide the funding for enforcement.
The Atlantic article by Andrew Giambrone describes one way to solve this data dilemma. Given the government’s seeming inability to deal with this problem, and the given the demand for data analytics on the part of schools (e.g. a 2012 survey of educational professionals indicated that 80% of the respondents “…believed analytics would become more important in the future”), developing an acceptable means of defining appropriate use of data may fall to local districts working with eager vendors. Giambrone describes how this is happening across the country… and it calls to mind a Ted Sizer quote I used frequently: “How does change occur in education? Slowly, Carefully, and All At Once”. His concluding paragraphs underscore why the systematic collection of student data is a good idea… and why this change will happen slowly and carefully:
Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, a New York-based company that develops adaptive-learning tools, says a lot of student data is going to waste right now; rather than being forgotten at the end of each school year or semester, it could be harnessed responsibly to drive learning outcomes. His company tracks students’ proficiencies across a variety of subjects, but will not share that information—even with teachers—unless explicitly authorized to do so by a student’s legal guardians.
“If you’re going to touch people’s data, it’s very important that the benefits be clear,” he explains. “‘Why should I let you collect my data? The benefits are fantastic? Now you have to reassure me you’re going to use it in a way I’m comfortable with.’”
Like Ferreira, I am convinced that reams of student data is going to waste.. but like the majority of parents, I am not yet comfortable with the way the data could and might be shared. That will take some time.
Diane Ravitch nails all the reasons this legislation is bad… but she and the commenters miss a horrific assumption implicit in the legislation: the most important outcome of schooling is earning megabucks. Based on that assumption, the most meaningful metric for a college is the earnings of its graduates and calculating that metric will require the collection of scads of data. And here’s a prediction I’ll make: some legislator will suggest this initiative could be funded by selling the data! After ll, selling the data is much more desirable than raising taxes… and anyway the kids entering college are already used to being monitored on cameras— and they have nothing to fear with their data being shared unless they have something to hide.
I read earlier this month week that NYC schools recently replaced their student data web site, as described in this paragraph from the NYTimes article:
The city’s Education Department created NYC Schools to replace Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, or ARIS, a data system built at great expenseunder Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration that was used by only a small fraction of parents. At the end of last year, the department ended its contract with Amplify, the company that maintained ARIS and is run by Joel I. Klein, who was schools chancellor during the system’s creation. Since then, parents have not had a way of viewing their children’s information online.
As one who began my college career as an engineering major and who ended up with a major in Humanities and Technology, I’ve long been an advocate of the power technology could bring to education. When I was Superintendent in upstate NY from 1997-2002 I aggressively expanded the use of technology in our offices and schools. With the technological capability to collect and use data, my staff and I sought ways to use data warehousing to improve our tracking of student progress and management of the reams of information we collected on our students. When I concluded by career working in an interstate school district in Hanover NH and Norwich VT we instituted the use of Powerschool, Apple’s data management system, It helped us schedule MS and HS students, maintain a common set of baseline information on students, and made each student’s grades available to parents through the use of a password protected portal. Both states in the interstate district developed (or bought) and ultimately required the use of on-line IEP programs and both states developed (or bought) management systems that enabled teachers to use data from State assessments to inform their instruction.
The introduction of technology was difficult in both venues. In New York, where the implementation preceded the widespread use of cell phones, I-pads, or even lap top computers, the daily or even periodic use of computers in lieu of paper was new and different and resisted by teachers, administrative assistants, and even parents. A decade later when we instituted the use of the parent portal the debates had more to do with security (e.g. are we SURE that a hacker won’t get into this?), the change in work expectations (e.g. you mean I have to post my grades on-line within a week of giving a test?), and process (e.g. we usually use a democratic process at THIS school to decide issues like the parent portal!).
To those who questioned security I indicated we WERE acting on faith that Apple had thought this through and was confident their system was secure— much the same way we took on faith that Amazon, our local banks, and our credit card companies are secure.
To those who questioned work expectations I responded in honest bewilderment. “I hope you don’t expect me to defend your right as a professional to make a student wait a week to find out how they did on an examination or a term paper… because I can’t.” Fortunately the professionalism of the great majority of the staff stopped that rebuttal in its tracks.
To those who questioned the process I had to acknowledge that decisions about what kind of operating system we would use had to be made in a hierarchical fashion…. and computers made it imperative that we abandon the old days where each school had its own system of listing and collecting names, addresses, and other baseline data which then required the successive school and/or teacher to needlessly re-enter the same information in a different format. This was a clear waste of staff time and resources. Of course this also meant that everyone would need to adapt to whatever changes resulted from the new system that was dictated from our office. While each Principal was involved in the decision regarding the kind of system we would design or buy… once the decision was reached EVERYONE had to use the same system. Bottom line: Choosing the system was democratic; implementing the system was dictatorial.
It’s been four full years since I led a school district, and much has changed in that time period. Indeed, even as I was leaving the office I had a sense that change was in the offing relative to data warehousing and student management systems. The small operation that offered the district in NYS a free demo on school warehousing got bought up by a bigger organization and the last I read they were somehow connected with Pearson. Oh, and Pearson bought Powerschool and became the developer of the assessments whose results would be stored on Powerschool… along with lots of information about a student’s health and well-being. And then I read blog posts like the one in last week’s Mathbabe that included this provocative information:
…EBay and PayPal recently changed their user agreements so that, if you’re a user of either of those services, you will receive marketing calls using any phone number you’ve provided them or that they have “have otherwise obtained.” There is no possibility to opt out, except perhaps to abandon the services. Oh, and they might also call you for surveys or debt collections. Oh, and they claim their intention is to“benefit our relationship.”
(And) Given how much venture capitalists (who have invested in many on-line services) like to brag about their return (on investment), I think we have reason to worry about the coming wave of “innovative” uses of our personal data. Telemarketing is the tip of the iceberg.
Schools have a trove of electronically stored information that parents and teachers clearly need and want to use… and private for-profit corporations are gobbling up these services and, as the Mathbabe notes, when they DO take them over they can unilaterally change the see agreements.
There IS a solution to all of this… and that is to pass some kind of legislation to regulate the use of student data so that it is not sold or disclosed to anyone. We can’t go back to filing cabinets stuffed with reams of papers that are impossible to sift through and expensive to keep… but we don’t want to compromise the confidentiality that paper documents generally provided.
Clayton Christensen’s weekly newsletter is full of thought provoking posts. This past weekend’s edition featured one by Michael Horn titled “Moving Past Summative vs. Formative Assessments” that describes how the technical challenges on-line learning institutions face often overshadow the need for well conceived assessments designed to measure mastery. He asserts that assessments are THE key element in CBE:
But assessments are the crux of a competency-based approach. Neglecting them misses dialing in on one of the things that is so critical to CBE being transformational, robust, and rigorous: how do we know if and when a student has achieved proficiency, fluency, and mastery of a competency? In missing this, too often providers fall back on a familiar pattern by merely focusing on the summative assessments at the end of a course of study rather than valid assessments that are deployed rapidly and frequently throughout.
Horn then offers an anecdote contrasting the training provided to assembly line workers by Ford Motor Company and Toyota. Ford uses a de facto trial-and-error technique where the trainee is placed on an assembly line and shown how to install a car seat by following multiple steps in sequence. This resulted in a high failure rate on the trainee’s part before he learned how to perform the task, a rate that might be discouraging to someone who lacks the wherewithal to stay with a task despite multiple failures. Toyota, on the other hand, demonstrated each step of the process in sequence and made certain the trainee mastered the first step of the sequence before proceeding to the next step… and provided the trainee with the time they needed to master each step.
While the article did not say so explicitly, it is clear that the way we educate children today in age-based grade levels is more akin to Ford and the way home-schoolers and un-schoolers educate children is more like Toyota. Moreover, internships– where someone is thrown into a short-term unpaid assignment with no training or expectation of mastery— are more akin to Ford while apprenticeships— where someone is learning under the tutelage of a master craftsperson— are more akin to Toyota. Needless to say, our culture, our workplaces, and therefore our schools, are more akin to Ford’s assembly lines where the fit survive and everyone else falls by the wayside. If we want to move toward mastery in schools we might need to move toward a mastery mindset in the workplace as well.
I have written frequently about how technology might serve as a means of equalizing opportunities in education and suggested that the major obstacle to taking full advantage of technology’s capacity was the need for universal access to broadband. In reading an overview of a report co-authored by University of Kansas’ associate professor James Basham, I was reminded that fulfilling the promise of technology will also require common standards, agreements on how data can be shared among various agencies, and lots of training. After recounting a conference where Mr. Basham presented his concept of Technology Enabled Personalized Learning” (TEPL) to an interdisciplinary conference, conferees identified three major issues that need to be addressed in order to implement TEPL:
- The development and adoption of technical standards for tagging content, defining and exchanging data, and easing integration of the myriad components of the Technology Enhanced Personalized Learning ecosystem needed to support educators, recommendation engines and related pedagogical research.
- Data policies, agreements and research protocols needed to scale research and development across data silos about what works with which types of students under what conditions.
- Redefining educator roles and supporting professional development to ensure that the human capacity needed to shift from a traditional teaching model to a student-centered TEPL model.
Operationalizing a technology-related improvement, like using technology to personalize learning, is easy to formulate but painstakingly slow to implement effectively without an infusion of money. When I read articles like this, I lament the fact that President Obama missed the chance of a lifetime to expedite the potential of technology by investing his political capital and stimulus funding on Race To The Top. IF he had thrown support behind an initiative to use technology to personalize and individualize instruction, federal funds could have been used to:
- expand broadband (instead of expanding testing)
- facilitate the development and adoption of technical standards (instead of the Common Core)
- help educators redefine their roles and responsibilities in a world where instruction is individualized (instead of promoting VAM which commits educators to their role as dispensers of information)
Maybe one of the presidential candidates for 2016 will see the promise of technology and advocate federal funding to accomplish the tasks needed to transform public education. In the meantime, schools remain ensconced in a silo.