Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, March 27, 2014 – Outside of a few contexts, the phrase “data-driven decision making” would provoke either yawns or vague anxieties brought on by images of spreadsheets and regression lines. In education, however, the phrase will get the blood pumping. Sometimes the rush will be one of excitement, as the term has become a touchstone for some people looking for more emphasis on outcomes and rigor in schools. For others, the heart will pound with anger, not excitement. These are the people who have seen “data-driven decision making” used to justify excessive use of standardized tests, the adoption of narrow and limited curricula, and the focus on “bubble students” close to arbitrary cutpoint for “proficiency” at the expense of other students.
A reevaluation seems in order.
At its core, the idea behind using information about student performance to improve instruction is sound. Most of the people advocating for “data-driven decision making” are really asking for informed decision making on the part of teachers. (There are also some — a small but powerful collection of advocates — who see this as a tool for closing neighborhood schools, advancing a competition-and-punishment agenda at the school and classroom levels, and generally messing with teachers’ unions.)
The thing is, most teachers are deeply committed to the idea of informed decision-making in their classrooms. The real discussion here is about how to make sure they’re collecting the best information possible and continuously improving their effectiveness and their students’ performance. Unfortunately, that work gets derailed when we confuse data for information and let decontextualized data points drive our work. We should be constructing information from data points and using it in the service of the work, not jerking spasmodically in reaction to the latest round of standardized tests.
These ideas come out in a recent Education Week blog post, where school administrator Ben Daley explains his resistance to “data-driven” improvement since, “too often the only data anyone is ever talking about is student performance on poorly constructed end-of-year standardized tests.” He contrasts that with a teacher-led research approach that uses a broader range of information sources to guide more direct improvements in how classes operate.
“Data-driven” comes with many meanings. Implying that teachers are averse to informed decision-making is insulting to many, and being too kneejerk in our reactions to standardized tests isn’t helpful. We need to ensure teachers and administrators have the freedom and support they need to put many sources of data to use in the right way.