Student Achievement: Is the Devil in the Data?

“The Future of Educational Data is Yours!” screamed the subject line of Education Sector’s Biweekly last Tuesday, as if selling the secret for eternal youth.  The e-newsletter invited me to listen in on a webcast on data-driven improvement that very afternoon. Within minutes of the video’s start, the audio-visuals disappeared, leaving a transcript, complete with references to “inaudible” words, tacking along the bottom of the dark screen.  “We are experiencing technical difficulty with the video feed,” appeared on the web page, “We should be back online soon.”

 So much for the promise of technology.

Aneesh Chopra, a.k.a. “rock star” and “Superman,” whom Obama appointed as the nation’s Chief Technology Officer, in May of 2009, delivered introductory remarks for the panel, which also included Sharren Bates, of the Bill and  Melinda Gates Foundation,  Beverly Donohue, V.P. for Policy and Research at New Visions for Public Schools, in NYC, and others. This is a crowd that toils at the intersection of technology and education policy.  They toss around words like “structure of value of data,” “digital infrastructure,” “using data to leverage education initiatives” with the greatest of ease.  And they believe that educational data—within an ever-growing digital infrastructure—is the answer to “low educational productivity” and “educational stagnation,” and a spur to innovation.

All of this public soul-searching and strategic brainstorming accompanied the release, last week, of the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which measures what students across the globe know and can do in reading, math, and science.  In what Obama called a “Sputnik moment,” and Arne Duncan, “a massive wake-up call,” the United States acknowledged the lackluster performance of its 15-year-olds, who were bested by Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Shanghai.

Our last “Sputnik moment” took us to the moon, and, on earth, a renewed focus on science education and innovation.  Sound familiar?  Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite.   I’m all for data, the technology to collect, disseminate, and analyze it, and, of course, innovation.  I just don’t believe that digital infrastructure is the road to boosting student achievement—or creating innovators of the future, for that matter.  I wish it were that easy. 

Down in the trenches of teaching and learning, the path is messier, and more challenging.  This past fall, with much less fanfare,  a National Expert Panel, including James P. Comer, Robert Pianta, Linda Darling-Hammond, Sharon Lynn Kagan, and Kathleen McCartney, issued a series of policy recommendations in The Road Less Traveled: How the Developmental Sciences Can Prepare Educators to Improve Student AchievementThey present a grim picture of disengagement and alienation among students, noting that “in a national sample of over one hundred thousand sixth to twelfth graders, only 29 percent indicated that their school provides a caring, encouraging environment.”  They also highlight the average high school graduation rate of 53 percent in the nation’s 50 largest cities—damning data that render the PISA exam results unsurprising.

The Road Less Traveled tells us that attention to basic skills alone is not enough to improve student outcomes.  Student learning and engagement can’t be divorced from social-emotional development.  Emotion affects cognition—something that ECE practitioners and researchers have long understood.   Adolescents have a critical need for relationships and connections, as well as a sense of competence, the feeling that they are successful and worthwhile.  To ignore child and adolescent development—or to underplay its importance, the case in many teacher preparation programs—is to condemn our 15-year-olds, along with their younger and older peers, to the very “educational stagnation” that has everyone—including yours truly—up in arms.

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