How to teach and parent better in the age of big data

At the parent-teacher conference, I sat across the table from my first grader’s teacher in a chair made for a 6-year-old. The teacher pointed to percentages scrawled in red ink. I looked and listened.

“This number,” she said, “is his Lexile score.” She went on, moving her index finger across a table created by MetaMetrics. “Here’s the range of normal for his age. So, you want to have him reading books at this level.”

Her report of his math performance proceeded in much the same way: more percentages, ranges and “levels,” sometimes calculated from different copyrighted measures.

By this point, I was having difficulty following. I silently wondered: I have a Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning, and I don’t understand what these data say about my kid. What are other parents getting out of these meetings?

When the teacher paused for a breath, I leaned as far back as the tiny chair would allow. She looked up from the cascade of worksheets, catching my gaze. I seized the moment. “Do you ever get to talk to Mac?” I asked. “I mean, do you know what he likes, what he’s interested in? That’s a good way to select books for him, based on his interests.” MetaMetrics doesn’t know what gets Mac (not his real name) excited about learning. She smiled and relaxed back into her chair, too.

It is not enough to collect data about a student. I believe that data are no substitute for building rapport with young people. And yet, elementary to high school teachers who work well with data, the ones who know how to measure and speak from percentages, are doing the job right. This is teaching in the age of “big data.”

Data-rich schools

Recent accountability pressures on schools, due to No Child Left Behind, mean teachers increasingly use student data to inform both classroom instruction and schoolwide improvement.

Just read the first paragraph of a 2009 Executive Summary from the Department of Education for a sense of the importance of data in schools:

The collection, analysis, and use of educational data are central to the improvement of student outcomes envisioned by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The use of data in educational decision making is expected to span all layers of the education system —- from the federal to the state, district, school and classroom levels.

In a 2007 survey of 1,039 school districts across the country, the Department of Education found that 100% maintained a student information system with data points like test scores on statewide assessments, demographics, attendance and behavior.

With programs like PowerSchool, Infinite Campus and Skyward – each charging more than US$5 per child per month -— these student information systems promise a one-stop shop for tracking all aspects of a district’s student and school data.

Ideally, these systems help teachers to look at student data in teams, with other teachers and school leaders. But how teachers across various districts typically interpret, use or ignore data is still an open question.