When the Devil IS the Data

Image source: http://www.edtpatips.com/edtpa-analyze-your-students-performance-with-an-item-analysis/ (it will be ironic after reading)

If you’re like me, you hate talking about your kids in terms of data and numbers. There’s something very dehumanizing about it, but other than that, it never quite sat right with me. The more I learn about racial justice in education, and the more I work as an administrator, the more clarity I have about that uneasy feeling that comes with the Data Talk. As a social scientist, I was taught how to have a healthy skepticism of Data. The thing is, while many educators are social scientists in practice, most of us have not been trained to be social scientists or how to critically assess Data. Administrators understand this, and can use Data as a tool of social control in three easy steps!

 

STEP ONE: DETERMINE THE PARAMETERS OF THE DATA

How often do you, as an educator, have the opportunity and ability to determine the Data you are using to guide your practice outside of your classroom? Do you and/or your colleagues determine the Data used to set building-wide or district-wide goals for your students? Or is goal setting driven by Data provided by administrators? Conversely, how often are you provided Data by administrators meant to guide your practice within your classroom walls? If you have more than cursory input to the Data used to guide your practice within or outside of your classroom, you are one of the lucky few.

The criteria, assessments, and surveys used to collect Data are almost always created by administrators or corporate education entities. Generally, the Data these tools were created to measure are Data that will help the creator, not the child. For example, standardized testing data. Test results are generally not available to educators until the following school year after students have left their classrooms, or at the end of the school year, in the case of computerized testing. This makes it easier for corporate education publishers to create materials that are “Common Core Aligned” or “Easy Test Prep” for the next school year. Entire curricula costing thousands of dollars are marketed and sold as a way to increase test scores. They’re bought in the summer and aren’t measured for efficacy until April or May when it’s too late to get a refund…

These same corporations lobby our elected officials who pass laws requiring tests and then pass more laws about how administrators are to be evaluated on their job performance according to test scores. Teaching and Learning are then informed by the Data parameters set by these groups, not by educators or students. And when students fail the tests because they’re experiencing trauma, food insecurity, racism, homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, ineffective teachers, or any other thousands of reasons, we create more Data to further dehumanize children to explain why they aren’t passing the tests. Are they truant and how often? Are they bad kids who get suspended? And when someone says, “Hey, wait. What about the whole child?” questions are added to assess how “safe” kids feel at school. But come on, we know that the only reason we look at “Whole Child Data” is in service of the first set of Data parameters.

 

STEP TWO: DETERMINE THE PURPOSE OF THE DATA

When’s the last time you were asked to analyze Data in order to help a student become a good human being? I would really like to have some Data to help me understand how to actualize critically conscious, self aware human beings. That would be amazeballs. Oooh… I know… why don’t “Failing Schools” look at Data collected about educators, like the racial demographic of educators in the building. I mean, I know that data is collected in most places, but when determining why students aren’t “achieving,” is that ever something anyone looks at? Or how about Data on how well educators are using culturally responsive teaching practices? I think it would be great if we collected and analyzed data on the content used in classrooms and ask, “How well does the content challenge the Master Narrative?”

No, we stick with Data on the child and what they can and can’t do and why they can or can’t do it. We don’t look at Data about the barriers students face at home, in the school, in the classroom, city, district, country, etc. Looking at The Whole Child feels an awful lot like Blaming The Whole Child. Sometimes we do notice when there are high rates of poverty and bring in supports like weekend food programs, more counselors, after school programming, and even free healthcare. That’s awesome, and I’m so happy kids have access to that in some places. Ask yourself, though, “What is the purpose of these services that come from analyzing Data?” The ultimate goal is always to increase test scores. “If kids have food they score better!” administrators say, as if they had just discovered some new chemical element. Rarely do we hear them exclaim, “If we provide food for all of our students, we are a better society!”

If you are a teacher activist who actively challenges this purpose of Data, you have probably heard something like, “We must do what’s in the best interest of the kids,” as if doing things for the purpose of being good and just people striving toward a good and just world is not in the best interest of kids. Administrators will do almost anything to convince educators that high stakes tests are what’s best for kids. “They won’t be successful later in life,” “Knowing how to test well will help them in college,” “We will know how to better educate our students with the Data that is produced by the tests.” All of those claims have been debunked here, here, and here, and that’s just a start.

 

STEP THREE: HIDE BEHIND THE DATA

“Show me where you see that in the Data.” This is how a professional development session began on how to analyze Data through a racial equity lens.

*Insert screeching brakes sound here*

Let me inhale deeply for a moment…

Yes, we were asked to analyze Data whose parameters had been set and purpose determined BEFORE a “racial equity lens” had been applied, and then we were told to use the Data to respond to people who might challenge the Data by telling them, “Show me where you see that in the Data.”

“Ms. Castro-Gill,” a school counselor might say, “this Data is confusing to me, because this student, Amelia, who by all other accounts is an exceptional reader, failed her reading test. Her father passed away over the summer. Maybe that’s her difficulty.”

“Show me where you see that in the Data,” I’m to reply.

“Ms. Castro-Gill,” a concerned paraprofessional might say, “many of the students I work with confide in me their teachers are racist and frequently send them out of the class for being ‘disrespectful.’”

“Concerned paraprofessional whom the students trust and love, please show me where you see that in the Data,” I should respond.

Sit with that for a moment. Sit with it and then take a minute to look at kittens, then come back to the conversation.

cute kitties

There we were looking at predetermined and pre-defined Data trying to figure out how to use it to “close opportunity gaps” that are created by the parameters and purpose of the very same Data. Oh, the circular logic is hurting my brain. Then, if anyone points out this circular logic, we are told if the Data doesn’t support our claim, then our claim is logically false. Now I feel like I’m typing in circles.

Data is not inherently neutral. Data can alert us to trends, but it’s up to us to look past the Data to see what its parameters and purpose are and who set each. If we know our Data comes from biased, and almost always racist, creators, it’s ok for us to look at other Data or create our own Data. Wait, I’m gonna go a step further and say it’s not only ok – it’s our responsibility. When I tell people Data exists that can point us to solutions for biased Data I am sometimes asked where to find it in the school district’s database.

“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” Assata Shakur

The Devil isn’t IN the Data. The Devil IS the Data. Challenge the Data. Push back on it. Ask for better Data. Create your own tools of liberation for you and your students.

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