The Price of Everything and The Value of Nothing: Education and Data's Complex Partnership.
As the school year begins to conclude, another round of high stakes testing is upon educators. Once it washes over them again, you might see leaders and teachers celebrating their successes or drowning their sorrows. A year’s worth of hard work is reduced to varying slices that are meant to put a value on educators. Value is the right word in this case as often: retention in roles, promotions, and new opportunities depend on this.
Say you teach 6th grade. Your students outgrew their peers on your standardized test, by a significant margin. Your praises are sung, and you are the talk of the school. Maybe next year you get offered department chair because you clearly know what you are doing. At the same time, your current evaluator rated you low. Rated you lower than other educators that got worse test scores. The coach’s skill level might even now be questioned by her superiors. To some this seems fair. Why shouldn’t it? Your job is to educate kids. You did that better than other people. Maybe they are the ones that don’t know what good teaching is?
The data says you are a great teacher. Any reasonable person could look at the data and all the easy to measure things and say that’s true. “The data doesn’t lie.”
The problem is what about the things that aren’t so easy to measure? Who decides the value on those? As a Principal I can tell you firsthand these traits are valuable:
willing to pick up an extra class when someone is out
responding to trauma
calling parents for good reasons, as well as not great news
willing to take a “tougher” class load because their counterpart is a new teacher
reflects our community
wants to grow
just wants to stay in their role
positive voice in staff meetings
and countless more...
These are all hard to measure, though, and vary in how much they matter in different contexts. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I think education and data in education are part of a “price.” The sum of the parts, all parts, are the value. Even the things that are hard to measure, can matter as much or more at times.
We can’t continue to ask so much of our schools, then disproportionately hold them accountable to the things that are conveniently measured. This accountability starts with policy makers and filters down to every level of schooling. In a world where every school mission statement mentions some version of character, hard work, or life skills beyond their academic performance, we as cynics evaluate the performance of a school by its test scores. This is how we put a price on the school. We aren’t doing well enough at capturing value because the easiest to measure part of schools is what’s most comfortable for accountability.
Data is part of the story. It’s important and data does matter. We just can’t overvalue the data because it’s convenient. We need to be sophisticated in how we think about it moving forward. The role of the school is more complex than ever. When we are looking at educator performance, especially in a sector depleted of resources and available talent, if we don’t stop assigning cost based on convenience and start figuring out how to value the inconvenient data to measure, I worry challenges of the industry will only continue. Anyone deciding the value of a school should ask themselves how some harder to measure things matter in that school community as well as the test score.