RSS Feed for This PostCurrent Article

Tom Scarice: When Big Data Are Meaningless: LINK ADDED

View the article’s original source
Author: dianeravitch

Tom Scarice is the superintendent of schools in Madison, Connecticut. He is no fan of the corporate reform movement. He understands that what matters most in life can’t be measured.

Here he describes one of the most important moments in the life of his 8-year-old son: he hit a grand-slam homer, over the fence.

He writes:

I can still feel the slap of his small leather batting glove in the palm of my hand as he rounded first base. By the time he reached home plate, occasionally touching the ground in route, my 8-year-old son, Owen, and I shared a moment that cannot truly be captured by words, and by no means, captured by numbers.

Owen hit a grand slam …over the fence… in a baseball tournament watched by a generous crowd of his closest friends and teammates. A volcanic eruption of joy. An eternal moment between a father and son. The slap of our hands in mid-flight, a celebration marked by a selfless love that can only be felt by a parent.

There is a beautiful photo of Owen rounding first base, flying through the air, as his Dad slaps his palm.

The moment reminds Scarice of what matters most. Not data, but the story:

In a sense, this moment can be dehumanized with numbers and symbols replacing the faces and stories, with callous disregard for the humanity that makes us whole. For it is the stories themselves that give life and meaning to numbers.

He writes:

Nevertheless, that which is easiest to count, may very well be the least meaningful or important to count. For you can count how many times I tell my children I love them, but you cannot quantify how much I love them, nor, without context, does the number you count represent the depth of sacrifice and denial of self that characterizes a parent’s primal love for their child. In these circumstances, the very act of counting, without regard for the story or context, has the chilling effect of dehumanizing.

Sadly, too many teachers have been trapped in mindless data exercises that irresponsibly neglect the story behind the numbers, turning children into faceless numbers… hence dehumanizing the sacred process of fostering the growth and development of our children.

Perhaps it is true that no profound, complex problem in human history has been solved without data, quantitative or qualitative. Yet, decades ago, eminent scholar and “father of quality,” Dr. W. Edwards Deming identified “management by use only of visible figures, with little or no consideration of figures that are unknown or unknowable” as one of his seven “deadly diseases” of management.

This reveals a very critical consideration when looking at data, you must understand the system, and perhaps more importantly, the context or story, that generated the data. This poses yet another warning from Dr. Deming, namely, that “Statistical calculations based on warped figures lead to confusion, frustration and wrong decisions.”

These wise words are most timely as the educational community awaits the next batch of big data to be delivered, the results of the latest test promising to revolutionize schooling, the SBAC. A hollow promise, based on warped figures, that will certainly deliver hollow results.

What will the SBAC data mean? Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all. Numbers in isolation, lacking story and context.

I once had an exchange with Arne Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Communications, Peter Cunningham, who has since moved on to become editor of the blog Education Post. We were talking about testing, and I contended that it played too large a role in assessment of children. Peter responded, “We measure what we treasure.” I disagreed. I said that “What we treasure, we cannot measure.”

What Tom Scarice has written proves my point. His son will have a batting average and runs batted in average; both will go up. But no data can capture Owen’s joy or Tom’s pride. Those are human qualities, and they evade metrics.

Trackback URL



Post a Comment