Monday, September 3, 2012

Feeding the Data Machine

In 1978 when I began teaching, I was handed a plan book, grade book, curriculum map, test book, and a schedule.

Off to work I went, writing things down, assessing kids all by myself, and reporting grades.  (To be honest, I can't remember how we did this!  Were high school report cards hand written?)

Today, all teachers must be conversant with a wide variety of software: grading software (that keeps parents continually updated), a student-accessible website (that must be continually updated), and a large variety of behind the scenes software responsible for collecting data (that ultimately must be kept 'fed' by the classroom teacher).  All of these duties take more time than the old-fashioned method.  (But if its in a computer then it must be true!)

Every school year, each program must be updated with the current rosters.  This year we are adding individual online student accounts to access the textbook - as I'm sure is occurring all over the nation as textbooks gain an online presence.

This takes considerable time and often results in a mad scramble at the beginning of the year as kids are put into the system, taken out, moved around, and on and on.  Yesterday, (Sunday of Labor Day) I spent five hours in service to some of these tools.  I will spend more time updating the course website later today.  (Computers: So convenient you can continue to work from home!)

Sometimes things go awry.  We are not a Fortune 500 corporation with legions of data crunchers and IT specialists.  In public schooling it is every district for itself when it comes to meeting the data-driven demands in terms of salaries and techy tools.  Each year these tools take up more and more of the budget pie.

But the data machine must be fed, and it is getting worse rather than better.  The reformist love affair with numbers means that nothing is real unless it is quantifiable with a number.

The classroom teacher provides all the raw data.

And so, just like the day I realized I was working for the machines in my life -- car, household appliances--rather than the other way around, I find myself increasingly chained to a computer. (Thoreau: We do not ride on the railroad.  It rides upon us.)

And it's not helping.

Recently, in an effort to get our struggling students some additional help as soon as possible, rather than waiting on the official data, we asked teachers to look at their previous year's rosters, highlight the names of kids who could benefit from some enriching activities, and send the lists on.

It took about ten minutes.

That's what can happen when you rely on professional judgement.

Still waiting on the "data."

Sometimes it feels like we're spinning our wheels.


  1. I started teaching in 1978 as well. This is what I remember. The names of all the student in a grade where written on poster sized oak tag sheets and passed from department to department to enter grades. Upon completion each homeroom teacher "checked out" the poster and transcribed the grades by hand onto individual report cards.

    Can't say I miss that.

    I think though, the data thing is a trap. There is lots of good things that come out of good data analysis, but it least in our district, making good data based decisions is not nearly as important as generating reams of data.

  2. Teacherfish: Thanks for dredging up the memory of grading before computers. That is not what we did, but I know it did take longer pre-desktop computer.
    I'm not a luddite. I love my Mac and computers have made life simpler in many ways --sending gifts to brides across country for one, managing student grades is another. But I'm in agreement with your last statement. A data point does not beat out a human being making thousands of judgements daily.