The Two-Faces of Data: Telling a Student's Full Story

Earlier this summer, Diane Ravitch highlighted in a  blog post several points made by Susan Ochshorn in her writing of  Big Data and Little Kids . In short, Ochshorn argues that a push for data-based achievement creates casualties among students. While I have an affinity towards all children, my work as an educator is dedicated to the empowerment of those who come from politically marginalized spaces. Because we must have a way to identify the needs and progress of this specific group, I cannot understand the opposition to data as a viable component in the schooling process. Focusing mainly on one of the highlights, I would like to publicly join the conversation and share my thoughts. Ochshorn says:
Americans love data. We cannot get enough of it. Collectors on speed, we measure every indicator in sight.
My response is a question: What is wrong with a love for data? Data collection, if done correctly, informs the current state of a program or a process. The data tells the story about how things are going. Without data, how does one answer the question? For every part of an event/phenomenon that can be measured, it actually should be measured. If we collect data in part, then we must discriminate between what is collected and what is not. This discrimination is dangerous. From a critical perspective, we must then question the authority that is assigned to discriminate and the condition in which such discrimination is being justified.

The Many Faces of Children

A common concern among my playmates when I was a child was whether or not another child was two-faced . Being two-faced meant that a person had two different presentations. And, how s/he determined which presentation to give was based on who was on the receiving end of the story. If someone told you that you were being two-faced, they were essentially calling you a phony. To them, you were inauthentic or lacking integrity. But, in the conversation surrounding data and data-collecting, being two-faced is different. It has a different value. Just as noted by my childhood playmates, presentations can differ based on the audience and the agendas specific to those audiences. However, in public education, there actually are different audiences with different agendas. And, we need to collect and share data in a way that acknowledges this diversity.

It’s Never Just One Story

While some may feel that we are becoming obsessed with testing any and every thing, I on the other hand feel that if we don’t, we will become dangerously close to having only one agenda (as shown when we get stuck highlighting only one type of data). I am excited to see us in education moving toward being more two-faced, as in telling multiple stories. In the political nature of public schooling, we cannot afford to give only one presentation. First, different stakeholders need different information about the progress of students, teachers and schools. Second, and most important, the complexities associated with marginalized groups make it absolutely imperative that we see their uniqueness… that their stories don’t get overshadowed by the stories of the whole.   Typically qualitative data, descriptive information about individual cases, tell a story of depth while quantitative data, summative information about a collection of cases, tell a story of breadth. Both are critical to understanding the nature of the learner. Unfortunately, some people want to report only on students as unique individuals while others only want to report on students as sociopolitical collectives. I am not sure why this is hard to understand but we need both! We need data that show the depths of students as individuals and we need data that show the breadth of students as collectives. To look at students in their individual development and not take a look at how they are developing according to like demographics fails to inform us about his or her political state and treatment. Likewise, to look at a collection of students, in terms of their sociopolitical demographics, and not take a look at their individual uniqueness violates the psychological premise of learning and development.  
Angela Dye is the executive director of The Empowerment Network.
Angela Dye
Angela Dye is the executive director for The Empowerment Network. With over 20 years of experience in urban education, Dye has practiced as a licensed principal and teacher in traditional and charter schools. Her expertise is empowering urban learners using skills in planning, instruction, assessments and classroom management. Dye holds a bachelor’s ...

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