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Editorials

Data Driven: Kansas Education Department Annual Conference

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This week, the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) is hosting its annual conference in Wichita. School board members, administrators and teachers from across the state are attending.

Glancing over the list of scheduled breakout sessions these educators can choose from, I keep noticing the word “data.” Session descriptions refer to a data dilemma, data to improve teaching and learning, and how to analyze and talk about data.

There are so many references to data I am starting to imagine students being transformed into binary code, zeroes and ones flashing on and off, on and off, on and off in a network of public schools, all becoming data stored in the virtual cloud that is the Kansas State Department of Education.

I was particularly amused by the title of one session, “Data Is Not Just Another Four-Letter Word.” Maybe George Carlin should have added “data” to his famous comedy routine about those seven naughty words. If he had, perhaps today we’d be shushing administrators at the conference when they mention the … you know … “the D word.”

Instead, we’re increasingly crunching numbers to show how much our students are learning … how effective our teachers are … how our public schools are closing the achievement gap. Or not.

All this data and number crunching results in reports that seem so objective. It is almost as if they are describing a fundamental reality underlying education, just as theoretical mathematicians use numbers and math to describe the fundamental reality of the cosmos.

Math may indeed be a universal language. If it is, then think of the educators who are analyzing the data as translators. Think of these translators struggling to find words in one language to communicate concepts that don’t exist in another. Think of the cultural misunderstandings that can lead to miscommunication. Think of the personal biases that translators inevitably bring to their work.

Certainly data can be useful. Data analysis can help us look at issues dispassionately, can help us notice patterns. Sometimes these patterns are predictable. Sometimes they are counterintuitive. Data reports can help us summarize seemingly overwhelming amounts of information in ways that help us understand.

And the Kansas State Department of Education, with its increasing emphasis on data collection, analysis and reporting, may be doing something right. Just yesterday — while Kansas educators gathered at their annual conference — state officials received some good news. The U.S. Department of Education released the National Assessment of Educational Progress report (often referred to as the nation’s report card). According to this report, reading and writing skills of Kansas students are significantly better than the national average.

However, even with this good news, I keep thinking of something I heard once about data and public education and Finland. That northern European country is not anywhere near Kansas, I know, but bear with me. The academic success of young people in Finland has placed it among the top 10 in the world, at least according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Okay, so I admit it. I’m using a number here, some data: the top 10. But the United States does not rank in the top 10. And what I keep thinking of is an interview I heard recently with Finnish education policy expert Pasi Sahlberg.

In that interview, he said that educators in his country don’t worry much about data or statistics.

As a matter of fact, he wrote about this difference in education policy between Finland in the United States in a recent blog post:

Finland has a very different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there external standardized tests or data used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Given that policy difference regarding the use of data, an annual Finnish education conference would be unlikely to offer sessions on:

  • Wow! Where did they get that information? (public data sources)
  • Driving Instruction With Data
  • Issues of Equitable Distribution (using data to examine equity issues)
  • Differentiated Professional Development (using data to focus on professional development needs)
  • An Introduction to Student Growth Models (including technical, data and theoretical considerations)
  • Building Data That Improves Teaching and Learning
  • SEEK Application Demo and Feedback Session (analyzing data quality)
  • Building Equity With a DQC Toolbox (ways schools have implemented positive data quality changes)
  • The Great Data Dilemma
  • Data Is Not Just Another Four-Letter Word
  • Accountability With Response-ability (how we present and talk about data)
  • 2010 Kansas Graduation and Dropout Data

But these are all titles of breakout sessions taking place during this week’s annual conference hosted by the Kansas State Department of Education. The conference started Monday and concludes today at the Hyatt Regency and Century II Convention Center in Wichita. 

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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.

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  1. Pingback: Basehor-Linwood School District Enters the Matrix « KC Education Enterprise - November 3, 2011

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