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Posted at 4:22 PM ET, 01/18/2010

More to education than data

By Valerie Strauss

Here’s Diane Ravitch’s response to a post I wrote last week about Teach for America. In that post, I had noted that “Teach For America” founder Wendy Kopp went to Capitol Hill to talk about new research on effective teachers.

Using test score data, the nonprofit organization--which recruits college graduates to teach in low-income schools for two years--has determined that effective teachers are those who employ the same strategies as successful leaders in any field.

I also pointed to a critique by educator Diana Senechal published on the Core Knowledge Blog, called “There Is No Such Thing as Teaching.”

Senechal writes: “If the goal is to drive up scores, then the people best suited to do it are those who can drive up numbers of various kinds—be it the membership of a club or their own GPA. But are they prepared to teach Victorian poetry, medieval history, or trigonometry? Have we even thought about what they will be teaching? Do we have a conception of education beyond the raising of scores?

Here’s Diane Ravitch’s take on the issue. (Ravitch is a former education official in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, a research professor at New York University and an author of best-selling books on education. Once a supporter of “No Child Left Behind,” she has come to think it was a failure and that its emphasis on standardized test scores has been detrimental to education.)

“Diana Senechal is absolutely right. The economists, statisticans, and number-crunchers with MBA degrees are trying to turn education into a data-driven activity, where we can keep score and find out who "won." But that’s not education! As Senechal points out, good teachers have mastery and love of whatever they teach, and the data will not reflect that. In fact, the data will capture only the narrowest aspects of schooling (not education), which is whether students get higher scores on standardized tests of basic skills. Children can be trained to get the right answer, like parrots or seals, but the higher scores are not a measure of a good education or a good teacher.”
-Diane Ravitch

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 18, 2010; 4:22 PM ET
Categories:  No Child Left Behind, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  Diane Ravitch, NCLB, Teach For America  
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When it comes to education experience, Ms. Ravitch is out of my league, which likely explains my trepidation.

That said, I think her response misses a larger point. There is an important distinction that too few people make when addressing the issue of data in education. Testing is just a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. But ‘testing’ has become a dirty word, and by making it a catchall for the analytical approach we’ve allowed it to become the centerpiece of the education debate.

Thus, if the ‘tests’ are flawed – which they may well be – then the analytical approach can be thrown out, too.

The end is measurement – of what is working and what is not. The central issue here is not whether one is for testing, but whether one is for measurement and the idea that by systematically measuring what works we can improve the educational process and its associated outcomes.

When we frame the issue in this light it creates the opportunity for middle ground in an otherwise polarized debate. Are people who are opposed to ‘testing’ also opposed to ‘measurement’, or does framing the problem in this way enable the position, “I believe in measuring outcomes, I’m just opposed to the current set of assessment tools.”

Every educator has a laundry list of peers who were passionate and brilliant, who were nevertheless lousy teachers. Teaching – like most things in life – is equal parts art and science. We will never be able to perfectly predict the success of a teacher, but a methodical and analytical approach can surely increase our chances.

Posted by: richenos | January 18, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

I just had an SAT Essay Writing seminar where I guarantee students will receive a 12 if they follow my advice. Most do and receive a 12. I tell them to read only half the question and strictly focus on three words in the question.

When I find out how students did on the SAT, they get such high scores.

But when I teach my regular classes, that is where I give students the most education I can. My classes don't concern grades or scores, only that they learn; when it comes to standardized tests, it's a whole different matter.

Posted by: ericpollock | January 19, 2010 5:49 AM | Report abuse

Yes and no.

Teaching to the test and testing for testings sake does little good to anyone concerned however we should not automatically associate the word 'data' with 'test scores'.

Data can mean school improvement evaluations, staff interviews, observations and can also mean student-voice surveys which gather comparable degrees of how 'connected' students feel to their school and whats being taught.

The Resilience and Youth Development Survey (RYDM) from California - part of their California Healthy Kids Survey - does this and the 'data' goes towards school improvement efforts, mental health initiatives and evaluations of the teaching process. This survey is conducted by 90% of all California school districts.

The state of New Mexico which is part of our Healthy School Communities initiative also conducts a similar resilience survey which feeds back into their schools improvement plans as part of the Healthy School Report Card.

So in short rather than just condeming the use of data we should expand our understanding of what data is and can be.

Sean Slade, MEd
Director - Healthy School Communities

Posted by: SeanSladeASCD | January 19, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Sean Slade is absolutely right, as is Diane Ravitch. The benefits of data-informed accountability and eveidence-based decision-making are great, but they are being pushed out by data-DRIVEN accountability.

As posteded in today's, data-driven accountability may be appropriate for fighting people who have demonstrated they are a threat to scoiety. But to improve teaching and learning we need a culture of evidence and peer review.

Posted by: johnt4853 | January 19, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Shifting the attention to good teachers cleverly changes to debate in two ways. 1) the definition of “good teacher” is so subjective that it cannot be conclusively established which teacher are good and which are not. 2) it avoids the focus on students, who, at least to my view of education, are the most important part of the education process. Have fun debating how good teachers transcend emulation – the non-good teachers and all the students are still there.

Note: Medicine used to be taught as an art too, where the special powers of great doctors were beyond replication. Eventually education may mature as a profession.

Posted by: john_falck | January 19, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

In Montgomery County, Maryland, we boast a school system that brands itself with the data-driven ideology. Some of the data seems to be misleading the public and ill serving our children. For example, the system has schools that identify more than 60% of their second-graders as gifted and talented (GT). Yet, a school in the same neighborhood, with essentially the same population demographics could label significantly smaller numbers as GT. Even more appalling is the reality that the very same second-graders from the “highly gifted” school may be trounced by their counterparts from the not so “highly gifted” school. Data has “driven” schools to manipulate public opinion with ease instead of being employed to identify the best teachers, effective teaching practices, or curricular rigor. Look at the data I have referenced in my column at

Posted by: DC_Gifted_Education_Examiner | January 19, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Thank god we have the silver bullets of "test them until they drop" and "teach to the test" for the problem of public education in this country.

Without these silver bullets we might have to spend real money and be really innovative to improve public education.

Now if the politicians could only find inexpensive silver bullets for other national problems.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 19, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

As usual, we rely on the policy wonks and the bean counters to decide the fate of public education in the US.

Not the actual people doing the job and who really know the kids and the community, THE TEACHERS.

Private schools don't bother with policy wonks and bean counters. Private schools are run by teachers and administrators who have been very successful teachers.

Until we change this unfortunate paradigm, our students and our nation will get further and further behind.

Posted by: tazmodious | January 19, 2010 11:02 PM | Report abuse

Most school assessments (standardized, criterion, formative, summative, informal, formal) essentially measure how well students have mastered, not necessarily the content, but rather the particular language (listening, speaking, reading, writing, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, symbols, etc.) or “nomenclature” of the subject being assessed, including the sciences and mathematics.

Most students obtain 60% to 70% of their language ability from home and 30% to 40% from school instruction.

Therefore, one could conclude, school assessments largely measure the primary influence of home and the secondary impact of school instruction.

Nevertheless, by using empirical data from assessments, schools can identify students with language deficits, measure the severity of the deficits, and prescribe early, rapid, and appropriate intervention.

Posted by: motherseton | January 20, 2010 12:02 AM | Report abuse

Data, *when used properly*, helps identify the specific needs of individual students.

This allows teachers to give students help where they need it most...rather than just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

As a former TFA corps member, I know that Teach for America's stated goal is to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers...AND/BUT that can be measured in a variety of ways.

The ONLY way to do that is to find out what the students need...which requires a thoughtful, systematic approach.

PLEASE.. let's stop oversimplifying the education discussion about data.

Posted by: holzhaacker | January 20, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

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