The key to Turning Data into Information

10/29/2010 01:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jose Vilson Math teacher, writer, activist, father, @teachingquality, @edutopia, author of This Is Not A Test (Spring 14), anti-hero. The teacher Gotham deserves.

In a world where schools are data machines and overlord chancellors come looking for spreadsheets, one man has the power to change that and spread his voice across the Earth for all educators to hear.

And that man is me.

I know I'm fairly new to teaching, but I find the amount of obsession over data to be excessive, especially when the definition of "data" is as elusive as the word "differentiation." Frankly, the people who bring this up are often the ones who pull terms like "interdisciplinary" and "student-centered" (or whichever term they can pull from the handy-dandy Education Jargon Generator and put into their Comprehensive Education Plan for their schools and districts) are also the people who cause the dissension about the policies, well-intentioned as they may be.

Much like the words that slip off the tongues of these pseudo-experts, data is nonsense without meaning and context. Many in the business world call this "data rich, information poor," and a big part of my job as math coach is to look at data and help myself and others turn it into useful information. For instance, it's not enough to know that a student passed or failed a test. We have to know where the student tripped or excelled. We have to know if the student didn't understand the reading portions or simply couldn't express the answer. We have to know if one teaching style is compatible with a particular student's capabilities or not.

Then, we have to look at that in the scope of an entire class, an entire grade, an entire academy, a whole school, a whole district, mixing and matching layers depending on your label of choice. Once we have those systems in place, we have to ask ourselves if any of it can be disseminated in a form that will yield quick changes to pedagogy (a word I rarely hear in my circle unless we're talking about the work of Paulo Freire) and maybe, better results in our formative and summative assessments. Maybe.

I'm not discussing different learning styles per se since that's been debunked by Prof. Daniel Willingham. It's more about the numbers that come at us from various sources. The tons of assessments we drop on students monthly (too many from third-party vendors who've seized on the opportunity for multimillionaires hungry to look like they're doing something with education money besides the right thing) give us nothing but decimals and percentages, rarely making any definitive statements about the progress (or lack thereof) that our students make in their education.

Thus, it often takes someone like me (or any other data miner) to break that down into something more realistic and feasible for the average teacher. He or she can probably tell me the same thing the data told me, but can't say it as elaborately as an automated spreadsheet can. It's not enough for them to print out a bunch of fabricated reports, stuff them in a binder, and show them to their AP during a inconsequential pre-observation. Plus, the teacher has an advantage that the data doesn't: the teacher has the power to give us data that doesn't show up in those assessments, the human stuff, the material no one wants to mingle with the numbers.

It's not that we suffer from innumeracy; we suffer from a lack of humanity in this respect. Taking the data and making it more human is the key to turning data into information. In a world where the affluence of data hasn't saved teachers, students, parents, principals, and other invested parties from the poverty of information, one person has the opportunity to save this "education nation" from itself.

Now, that person is you.