Beautiful Bytes of Data

Jose Vilson Guest Posts

[Today’s special guest is Anthony Mullen, 2009 Teacher of the Year and awesome writer. Feel free to tell us what you think about his post in the comments below.]

The young man wearing blue jeans and a red and white polo shirt is anxious. He frequently looks at his watch, shaking his head while staring at the train tracks. He is restless and angry and impatient because the train is late again. He bends over and grabs a handful of gravel, throwing the shattered stone against a pair of cold steel rails. A few commuters standing on the train platform watch, quietly wondering why the young man is so upset. It is, after all, a bright and sunny afternoon. A solitary businessman wearing a Brooks Brothers suit is too busy texting to notice anything.

Damn. Why are fuckin’ trains always late? Why does it have to be late today?

The young man kicks an empty bottle of Diet Coke.

Why bother making plans when people just screw ‘em up?

In the distance two serpentine lights appear, silent and ominous, signaling the arrival of the 6:15 from Grand Central Station.

Finally. He peeks at his watch and feels a sigh of relief.

The young man smiles. It’s been a long time since he has smiled, but his nerves are calm now and he will not miss his appointment. Life is hectic enough, and missing scheduled appointments make him feel rushed and nervous.

The train’s engineer pushes the throttle forward and the massive juggernaut of steel and glass and people race toward the concrete platform.

The young man waits until he can see the flushed face of the engineer, and then he steps in front of the train.

The man in the Brooks Brothers suit stops texting. He will be late for work today.

The word data slides easily off the tongue but has no personality and sounds as dry as a funeral drum. School administrators try to grace the word by telling parents that “data-driven school districts” will radically change public education, hoping that a staccato of words and a flare of alliteration will impress a captive audience. Some disingenuous school officials assert that “data-driven” is an essential tool for effectively managing a business, so why not a school system?

But it’s all a ruse. The sum of all the rhetoric about the importance of designing data-driven school districts is a shell game, a slight of hand practiced by illusionists to distract trusting parents who believe school administrators know what is best for their children. Anything “data-driven” must be beneficial for schools, parents are told, because data is information, and information is necessary to make sound decisions about curriculum, instruction and learning. And since even the best used car salesperson can no longer sell the faux elixir of Common Core now that this failed one-size-fits-all education policy has been exposed, school administrators need a new mantra to mystify parents.

Data has an ugly side, a face that frequently emerges when it is misinterpreted or convoluted to justify a faulty assumption or bad decision. The countless financial manipulations practiced by Wall Street brokers and bankers have repeatedly proven that data can be exploited and cause financial ruin for millions of people. Data may be defined as a set of values of quantitative and qualitative variables, and business savors at the trough of data, but schools should be people-driven rather than data-driven institutions.

The young man who stepped in front of the train was a beautiful byte of data, but he was more than the sum of the quantitative information collected by a data-driven school district. His social and emotional data fills less space on his school district’s list of quantifiable student data than math and science scores, and that is the shame of the present state of American public education.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease … combined. Need quantitative data? Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,400 suicide attempts by young people grades 7-12, and four out of five teens who have attempted suicide give clear warning signs. Maybe its time to take off the blinders of a data-driven school district to see clearly that our students are suffering.

Data is not our generation’s penicillin. It is an ugly word used by school administrators, policy makers, and government officials to demean the greatest social institution ever designed by human hands – a public school. Data is being used to compare the United States with countries such as Finland because the Finns score higher on international math and science tests, but can someone – anyone – tell me what Finland produces with their wealth of science and math knowledge?

[crickets]

The United States may score lower on international math and science tests, but somehow we instill creativity in our students and produce amazing technologies.

I taught and helped mentor the young man who stepped in front of the train. I helped him get a scholarship to a vocational school after he earned a high school diploma. He wanted to be an electrician, but I also knew about the many demons that tormented his gentle soul. He endured a miserable childhood, never knew his father, drank too much, and could not leash his black dog of depression. I tried to place him on a road that could lead him to a better place, believing that terra firma would make him feel a clearer path to success and salvation, but he could not see nor feel the ground beneath his feet. I failed.

I believe the vast majority of classroom teachers are not opposed to collecting data that may enhance instructional strategies or improve learning, but do object to a school system trying to emulate a business model designed to increase production and profits rather than enhance social and emotional growth. The social and emotional learning needs of children are too often omitted when describing the purpose of a “data-driven school district” and this is a flawed education philosophy.

The young man was a beautiful byte of data. Now he is a cold dead statistic.