The “I don’t know” of student data collection

I mentioned a podcast I listened to recently called Clearing the FOG, a left-leaning independent radio station that explores a variety of issues that revolve around corporate avarice, inequality, and the ways in which democracy as we know it is being bent to the will of the few. In this podcast, entitled “Education Under Attack, Teachers Fight Back,” the invited guests talked about a number of topics relating to misinformation about public schooling and how this is being used to control classrooms, teachers, and school districts while servicing the rich and the powerful. I was reminded tonight of a comment made by the participants that a report had come out in 2013 revealing that researchers had been collecting data on 3rd and 4th graders’ test scores to determine the number of beds in a youth detention center that should be built in Seattle.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Luckily, it’s not true (see the Politifact page that debunks this claim.) The purpose of my rug-pulling is to articulate the issue of data-driven decision-making, or DDDM, which has gained popularity at various levels of society over the last couple of decades, including in the medical and financial fields as well as in education. (For a liberal discussion, read this; for a conservative view, read this.) Motivating the increased collection and use of student data in academic assessment and the administration of resources is the slashing of budgets in public schools and the search for cheaper, more quantifiable means of monitoring students’ progress, tracking their behavior, even collecting information on what they buy for lunch using a student ID card. I was inspired by PBS Newshour’s story entitled “Why digital education could be a double-edged sword” and I think a privacy expert’s comment really caught my attention:

“We can envision a day, for example, that a health insurance company wants to see what they ate when they were third graders to decide how they’re going to underwrite insurance. Is it farfetched? Could be. We don’t know.”

It’s the I don’t know that scares me (and many parents, including an upset mother whose son’s social security number was stolen by an deviant employee). The ability to predict the future, especially when it involves profit, is a dangerously tempting prospect for many privatizing interests in public schooling. These interests are promoting the use of data-driven decision-making to justify teacher layoffs, develop curriculum that is cheaper to deliver and involves fewer teachers (the term “personalized” is a misnomer), and create charter schools (which are not proven to be any better than their non-charter counterparts) to replace public schools and soak up scarce government funds. I’m not a number-fearful liberal; rather, I’m a grad student who’s learning about quantitative information that can be shifted and dolloped and shaped to serve certain interests. And it’s the not knowing what the consequences of broad and unsubstantiated student data use yet are – combined with the fact that people on the ground level who are teaching and learning in schools are the objects of such flawed and self-serving decision-making – that makes this a threat we must address for all of our futures.

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