Without data, you are just another person with an opinion

I attended a planning session yesterday afternoon for the upcoming Education Leaders Forum to be held in Rotorua later this year. We discussed a range of issues affecting leadership in the education space, and inevitably the issue of standards, benchmarking and testing emerged – with a range of opinions being expressed as people try to second guess what might emerge from the NZ government’s current deliberations over national standards and league tables for primary and intermediate schools, for example.

Most of the discussions on these topics (particularly among educators) become polarised and full of emotion as we naturally seek to preserve the ‘stable state‘, however, as I see it, there are two underlying pressures that mean we’ll always be confronted with thinking about these issues. The first is the fact that there is a substantial investment being made in education and as such we must be prepared to provide some sort of accountability for that. Second is the fact that the ‘end of education‘ involves preparing young people for their future – and a recognition that that future is constantly changing and evolving – (implication – we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done!)

A significant problem, from my perspective, is the fact that it is difficult to raise the level of discussion to where it needs to be. So often I hear things like, “we can’t change society, but we can change the way we teach (and by inference, measure) kids in classrooms”. I actually don’t have any difficulty with exploring more systematically the way we teach (and measure) – but I do have difficulty with putting energy into that without taking cognizance of the context within which it’s all happening – and risk entering the world of boiling frogs 🙂

The key here is data – for without data, you are just another person with an opinion.

It was timely then that a colleague of mine at CORE sent me a link to a powerpoint presentation from Prof. Andreas Shleicher, Head, Indicators and Analysis Division at the OECD Directorate for Education. titled “Benchmarking the performance of education internationally”, the presentation provides some useful summaries drawn from reports from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Schleicher’s presentation begins with a refreshingly “big picture” view of why this data is important – focusing on the skills needed in the 21st Century – in particular, the role of technology as a key driver here:

  • The personal computer enabled millions of individuals to become authors of their own content in digital form.
  • The spread of the Internet and the emergence of the World Wide Web enabled more people than ever to be connected and to share their knowledge.
  • The emergence of software standards means that people are able to seamlessly work together and upload and globalise content.

He concludes that there is now “nowhere to hide” and goes on to use the PISA data to illustrate how the global talent pool has changed. I was interested in the inclusion of a graph taken from work of Levy and Murnane (2005):

This graph illustrates perfectly the challenge we face, and why data is important to help establish our response. The dilemma of schools from this is that the skills that are easiest to teach and test are also the ones that are easiest to digitise, automate and outsource! Thus, in our consideration of what we need to teach, and how we need to test it, we must be continually examining the strategies and approaches used to ensure we don’t fall prey to the “lowest common denominator’ syndrome.

If we are going to assess students, programmes, school performance etc (and I believe we must do so in some form or other), we need to ensure that what we do is genuinely useful and forward looking, and not simply providing a convenient way of comparing performance with some (often arbitary) external reference point.

As Schleicher summarises in slide 31, “…in deciding what to assess we must choose between looking back at what students were expecting to have learned (a traditional approach) or looking ahead to how well they can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply their knowledge and skills in novel settings.

There’s a lot more contained in the slide show, and I recommend a good browse. Schleicher explores what the data shows about the autonomy of schools in selecting staff, the relationship between the amount of money spent on education and the outcomes achieved, the use of internal vs. external measures, and the results of efforts to provide socially equitable opportunities for learning among other things.

At the end of the day it’s all about improvement, at an individual, school, system and societal level, and as Schliecher points out at the end of his presentation:

You cannot improve what you cannot measure
[we need a] next generation of global benchmarks

9 thoughts on “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion

  1. … and with data, you’re just another person with an analysis. There is room for both.

    Narrative inquiry provides context in a way that quantitative data does not. It tells a story about a living breathing human being, from which others can learn. It asks the question “How do I improve my practice?” and allows the reader to reflect on their own unique circumstances.

  2. What good is data without the person with an opinion? We certainly need more than one way to look a the world. Listening to people may take more time than looking at data but at least people tell us stories that we can actually learn from.

  3. Thanks for your comments Karyn and Nancy – you are, of course, absolutely right about the value of qualitative data, including the use of narrative inquiry, action research etc. And of course, this is yet another way of gathering and using data, thus, the point remains -without data, you are just another person with an opinion. The fact that the data referred to in my blog post happens to be quantitative reveals one side of that coin – thanks for reminding us that we should think more widely about data when considering the truth of the statement.

  4. Kia ora Derek

    Thanks for the data. It’s funny you should mention that without data you are just another person with opinion. I liked your Schliecher’s quote too.

    There are many ways of using this idea. Goethe said, “if you go looking for evidence (data) to support your claim, you’re sure to find it”. Obviously there’s more to it than just gathering data.

    BUT . . .

    early last year when I (with the rest of my colleagues) was introduced to the New Curriculum we were told that there was a need to improve things about the Curriculum because learner achievement was not as good as it could be. I asked two questions when these were solicited.

    The first was, “how do we know that learner achievement overall cannot be improved more than it is already, whatever the Curriculum contains?”

    The second was, “what evidence was used in deciding what changes made to the (old) Curriculum would improve learner achievement?”

    I was dismayed that the answers to these pertinent questions were, “we don’t know” and “none”. I took my hat off for them coming clean about all this when what was said was quickly paraphrased with, “but there is still a need for change.”

    I wonder about this approach to addressing change. It’s not scientific. It’s not logical. It could be argued that it’s not even moral to impose change in the hope that the results will be an improvement.

    I’d be interested in your opinion on this.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  5. I am sure data is good I distinctly remember cluster quantitative data being fine as a rough guide but that where qualitative lay were the real nuggets the opinion changing information. I have been looking at the 14 challenges for the 21st century as laid out by the academy of engineers. One of these is to personalise learning. What this flags for me is a change in even the quantitative data that will hold value and the way it will be referenced. Easttle and nationalised data sets seem to me the only way to provide formative data for personalised learning and some sort of assessment as to how we are faring in terms of improving learning. I am left wondering if born today in 44 years time would I be more capable than I am today as a 44 year old. lol I hope so.

  6. Hi Ken
    good to hear from you – interesting to note the rationale given to you for the development of the revised curriculum. I’m frankly surprised, as my understanding of the review of curriculum internationally had less to do with the ‘hard science’ of measuring achievement than it did with a review of schooling and what is taught/learned to adequately prepare young people for life in the 21st century. This comes from a recognition that our existing school system has foundations in the industrial era etc. and that we’ve certainly moved beyond that in terms of the way that pretty much everything else in society is organised, operated and participated in. And there’s plenty of evidence to support this need.
    Making a direct link between the new curriculum and student achievement is, at best tenuous, and at worst reveals a gross misunderstanding of what curriculum review is all about.

  7. Kia ora Derek.

    I concur wholeheartedly with what you say about (even attempting) making a link between student achievement and the need for new curricula. NCE what? Student achievement is all teachers are hearing about right now. But then that’s all that’s been driving secondary education since the beginning of this century.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  8. Derek,
    I completely agree with you that the future is constantly changing and evolving, especially in the world of education. As a first year teacher, I have been reminded numerous times throughout this school year that it is not only my students’ futures that are dynamic, but mine as well. In order for any educators to be successful, it is necessary to examine the approaches, strategies, and practices taking place in the classroom. It is all too easy to be tempted by the convenience of examining students, teachers, and other components of the education system in the same continuous manner.

    Technology is a huge factor in the evolving future for teachers and students not only in the classroom, but outside it as well. You referred to technology as a “key driver” of skills that are needed in the 21st century, which is completely true. As a recent graduate, I often felt during my schooling that technology was well emphasized and presented. I am fortunate to have some technology in my district (smart boards and wikis are often used), but upon entering a technology class for my masters degree, I have realized how quickly technology is becoming more and more a part of the education, including student and teacher evaluation.

    I believe that as educators, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about technology in order to prevent ourselves from entering that world of “boiling frogs”. By doing so, technology and other forms of assessment and data that are mentioned in other responses to your blog, can aide in evolution that improves the “…individual, school system, and societal level…”. Teachers and others in the educational field need to look to technology as the driving force, which you recognized, as a tool for creating the “next generation of global benchmarks”.

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