Study: Schools’ data-driven programs must be used to support students and teachers, not punish

America’s love for data is nothing new; the real challenge is asking whether the data make sense.

As more states apply data to the classroom in the form of standardized tests and data-driven improvement and accountability (DDIA) programs, this challenge becomes critical for the future of our children and their ability to meet their fullest potential.

Consider humankind’s experience with data. In the 1970s, a soccer coach from the former Soviet Union decided to measure every movement his players made in his effort to build the perfect soccer team. Passes across the field carried the same value as passes up the field, toward the opponent’s goal. Artful if hard-to-measure head-fakes and foot feints weren’t counted. Other coaches adopted this philosophy, and began tallying whatever data could be counted, from passes and headers to the number of steps a player made. “More” became the yardstick for success, which inadvertently created a “target culture” focused more on accountability and outcomes, rather than improvement.

In our schools, this trend appears in DDIA programs, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. For educators, these programs have been a double-edged sword. They provide teachers and students broad goals to aim for, establishing a baseline of accountability.

At the same time, all of us should question what data are gathered, how the data are used and, most important, whether the data help improve students’ ability to learn. These questions are especially timely now.

In a newly released report, “Data-driven Improvement and Accountability,” Boston College education professors Andy Hargreaves and Harry Braun say schools must ask these questions, because high-stakes measures tend to put adverse pressure on administrators, teachers and students. As a result, DDIA programs set back real and sustainable improvement opportunities — and these issues must be addressed now because Hargreaves and Braun argue that strategies in U.S. education are generally inferior to those of other countries.

When used thoughtfully, DDIA provides educators with valuable feedback on their students’ progress by pinpointing where the most useful interventions can be made. Thoughtful uses of DDIA also give parents and the public accurate and meaningful information about student learning and school performance.

However, in the United States, measures of learning are usually limited in number and scope, and the consequences for schools and teachers of apparently poor performance are often punitive. The result is double jeopardy:

  • First, accountability impedes improvement. Under pressure to avoid poor scores and unpleasant consequences, some educators concentrate their efforts on narrow tasks such as test preparation and coaching targeted at those students whose improved results will contribute most to their school’s test-based indicators.
  • Second, accountability is undermined because teachers feel pressured to “game the system” to get their scores up quickly.

To ensure that student improvement becomes the main driver of DDIA — and not simply an afterthought to accountability concerns — Hargreaves and Braun suggest basing professional judgments and interventions on a wide range of evidence and indicators that properly reflect what students should be learning. They also recommend designing systemic reforms to promote collective responsibility for improvement, with top-down accountability serving as a strategy of last resort when this falls short — practices common in high-performing countries and systems.

Schools are hurtling forward in implementing DDIA programs. Many aren’t asking critical questions that can help students achieve and improve. Before we further entrench ourselves in the quagmire of fashionable-but-dubious educational trends, all of us should step back and ask some tough questions about the Big Data that have come to define the lives  — and futures — of our students, teachers, parents and educators.