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Solving Big Data’s Big Dilemma in Public Education

June 25, 2015

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.

 

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