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New era of accountability: Reducing students to "anonymous data points."

Reducing kids to data points

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Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia, wrote this essay for the blog.

By Peter Smagorinsky

“I didn’t decide to get into teaching because I wanted to teach English. I got into teaching because I wanted to teach kids.”

A young woman in her second year as a high school English teacher made this comment to me during a conversation we had recently. Her reason for deciding to teach resonates with what I felt when I made the same decision in the 1970s, and what most teachers I know say about their purposes in undertaking this career: They teach because they want to make a difference in kids’ lives.

I had loved reading and writing as a college English major, but had no aspirations to do either for a career. Rather, like most English teachers, I wanted to help kids learn to live more fulfilling lives by engaging with literature and writing, to learn about life through the discipline of English.

The kids that teachers hope to have a positive impact on are your kids and mine: flesh and blood people with emotions, hopes, flaws, obstacles, fears, friends, music, hobbies, loves, hates, and the full spectrum of human frailties and possibilities. Students are filled with potential, growing into their worlds and helping to shape their environments in the process. They laugh, goof off, pout, rebel, comply, and try to be unique and to conform all in one stroke.

They come to teachers at a time in life when they are fragile and uncertain, knowing it all and knowing so little. Their homes might be supportive, or they might not have homes at all. They mostly claim to hate school, yet school is where they find their friends, learn how to navigate culture and society, learn through subjects and activities that engage their interests, and find themselves in the company of caring adults who have dedicated their working lives to helping them find their way.

Of course, not all teachers are so benevolent; the media routinely report on the predators, the cheats, the unprofessional, the cold-hearted. Life’s unkindness can turn a person sour and angry and hostile to the very people their work is designed to benefit. But these, in my experience, are the exceptions, rare enough to merit media attention when they cross the line of propriety or demonstrate professional or social incompetence.

To return to the teacher whose quote opens this essay: At times, she feels like quitting, because the job can be so frustrating. Is it the kids who, as so vividly described by Headmaster William F. Washington Jarvis of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School, reveal themselves to be “mean, nasty, brutish, selfish, and capable of great cruelty and meanness” and thus lacking essential traits of good character, driving distraught teachers from the classroom?

Quite the contrary, she said. Kids can be difficult, distracted, and disaffected, but they remain her motivation to teach. Rather, it’s the adults, especially those in powerful positions, who cause her misery, because of what they believe kids to be: anonymous data points on a dispassionate spreadsheet.

This teacher has begun her career in the era of accountability, in which data-driven decision-making stands above all else. Much of her time, she says, is spent constructing data-based versions of her students. She feeds data about their attendance, their grades, their test scores, their disciplinary records, their learning deficiencies, their race, their gender, and any other possible data point into an algorithm that produces a bureaucratic stick figure of the student.

Theoretically, the assembly of data can tell something about the student, providing useful knowledge that can in turn inform the reflective practitioner’s efforts to provide appropriate placement, support, and instruction. What it produces instead is a data-based version of the child that serves as the bureaucratic reality of that child’s life. Instead of providing information about the student, the data instead become a reality unto itself, such that the stick figure on the spreadsheet comes to represent the young person in his or her wholeness.

Data, instead of informing decisions about real kids, serve instead to displace those real people, substituting virtual representations based on selective bureaucratic decisions about what is important to know about them, often based on what is easiest to measure and classify about them.

When these selectively constructed virtual students replace real kids as the focus of education, teaching and learning veer off the tracks. Most fundamentally, as data points, these young people and their teachers lose their humanity, allowing bureaucrats and policymakers to view them as game board pieces with no soul, no will, no love or joy. It’s easy to decide to close down an “underperforming” school when you have stripped the people who populate it of what makes them human.

This process of dehumanizing students and teachers also reduces them only to what is convenient about them to justify policy decisions. Absences are absences; there is no need to understand why children in poverty are undernourished, have transportation problems, are not socialized from birth to view school as a vehicle for upward mobility, or otherwise might not make it to school or class. They are simply absent, and that absence has meaning on the spreadsheet, if not in the real life of the child.

So many teachers I know now much dedicate far too much of their time to constructing these virtual children to meet policy demands for bureaucratic accountability. They do so at the expense of other ways of spending their time, such as helping kids before or after school to learn their subject matter, deal with emotional trauma, meet the challenges that childhood and adolescence throw their way, and overcome their fear of school and its intimidating and increasingly remote adults who must devote their efforts to paperwork rather than relationships.

What do we gain by turning school into a data-driven accountability machine? We do increase our knowledge of population traits and trends. What we lose sight of are the kids whose lives generate the statistics so beloved by policymakers. That, to me, is quite a tradeoff, one that sacrifices the raison d’etre of most teachers, replacing it with a cold and heartless conception of the real life of schools. This real life, rather than the data points that educrats use to connect their accountability dots into one-dimensional versions of multiple-dimensional people, involves genuine dedication for the well-being and nurturing of young people and their hearts and minds.

 That’s what people go into teaching for. Its loss is what leads talented teachers leave the profession in search of the worthwhile experience that they originally had hoped, with fervor and excitement, that teaching would provide for them and their kids.