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In April, the New York Times Magazine printed a story called "The Data-Driven Life." It's an exploration of the ways in which technologies -- mobile technologies, sensors, and the like -- have helped to privilege a quantitative over a qualitative self-evaluation. We've moved from a world of the journal to a world of the spreadsheet. The NY Times story chronicles this "ubiquitous self-tracking," noting that even very personal aspects of our worlds are now open for this sort of numeric assessment: it's not just our bank accounts that we analyze. We map our location via Foursquare; we track our exercise regimen on an iPhone app; we monitor moods, productivity, diet, data usage, number of Twitter followers. We count everything.

We tolerate the pathologies of quantification � a dry, abstract, mechanical type of knowledge � because the results are so powerful. Numbering things allows tests, comparisons, experiments. Numbers make problems less resonant emotionally but more tractable intellectually. In science, in business and in the more reasonable sectors of government, numbers have won fair and square.

Numbers may have won, but I'm not sure it's a victory I can feel good about. Despite the intellectual security that numbers can provide us, I do not believe that humans' actions always fit so neatly and tidily into sums and figures -- neither our experiences nor our capabilities. We are infinitely more complex. And while numbers can help us answer (some) questions, I don't think numbers can ever really give us a complete answer to many aspects of our lives.

Like, say, teaching and learning.

A recent LA Times story made a strong argument for using numbers (standardized test scores) to evaluate teacher performance. The Times took seven years of math and English test records from the Los Angeles Unified School District and using this data, calculated a teacher's "value-added." By tracking a particular student's performance from year to year, argue The Times, you can ascertain how much an individual teacher makes a difference. Good performance on tests, of course, equals good teacher.

The Times printed teachers' names and scores. In the August 14 article, some of teachers with low "value add" are portrayed as dullards. It's no surprise, I guess, that their scores are low. But some it catches by surprise with the assessment -- principals, parents, peers love them. And yet...

The article ends with the question many have been asking since it was published: Why aren't we using this data? "What's there to hide?" asked US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Or to quote the NY Times again: "Numbers have won fair and square."

Indeed.

As a parent, a former teacher, a taxpayer, someone who would believes in free and equitable access to education and information for everyone, I want there to be good teachers working in good schools. And I understand we need ways to ascertain what "good" means. Don't get me wrong.

But I'm not sure these numbers tell you who the good teachers or the schools (or even, necessarily, the good students) are.

I think back to who my best teachers were, and I wonder if my evaluations correspond to how well I did on any state-mandated Scantron that year. I might've performed well. I might not have. I might be an ace multiple choice test-taker, no matter the subject matter or instruction, so test performance really might not matter. And so, to me (a lover of stories, not numbers), a test score will always pale in significance next to the myriad of other lessons I learned in any given classroom.

Do enough of us even agree that test scores adequately represent student learning for us to turn and apply those scores to teacher evaluation? In describing "who's teaching LA's kids," The LA Times article notes the classes in which students appeared "engaged." But test scores don't track "engagement." They simply track, well, test scores.

If we reduce teaching and learning to a number -- despite all the technology we have right now to quantify many, many things -- if we rely solely on this sort of data to drive policy and funding, I fear that this data-driven education will give us a lot of wrong and incomplete answers. And I fear we will miss a lot of teaching and learning.

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Audrey Watters


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