Magazine article National Forum

Very like a Whale: The Dangers of Data Worship

Magazine article National Forum

Very like a Whale: The Dangers of Data Worship

Article excerpt

Like most readers, I am regularly deluged with interesting statistics, both trivial and profound, for which I can find little use. The local press reports, for example, that Bill Gates has an annual income equal to the combined earnings of two-thirds of those in my county. Census data reveal how many cars, telephones, and bathrooms the average household possesses. Salary and work-load studies tell me how others in similar positions are rewarded for their labor. And my potential access o electronic data continues to astonish me.

Although I take pleasure in collecting bizarre details (I recommend the London Times to those similarly disposed), my interest in information-gathering goes beyond that of a passive consumer. Most academicians regularly gather and analyze diagnostic, descriptive, or evaluative materials, as members of review/recommending committees or as professionals examining their own or others' work. Some of us devote a significant portion of our time to such endeavors. Seasoned fact-finders frequently move on to state or national committees, where they conduct similar work.

No expense is spared in the collection and dissemination of such quantitative analyses, however large or small their import, and great confidence is often expressed in the results so generated. Colleges get reaccredited, or not, based upon detailed program descriptions; colleagues are awarded discretionary raises on the basis of documentation attesting to their merits; students are admitted or denied access to programs, a status based upon some set of numbers; school systems must demonstrate conformance with state or national expectations, in light of a set of standardized measures. This year, for instance, the State of Tennessee, as part of its "value added" incentive, will spend 1.2 million dollars measuring the academic achievement of second- through eighth-graders, even though they admit to serious doubts about the soundness of their assessment system.

Results Reporting as Catharsis

And yet, as I persist in my efforts to help quantify truth, I become increasingly skeptical of the possibility of doing so. Two recent fact-finding efforts illustrate my dilemma. The National Educational Goals Panel, staffed by an impressive catalog of experts, recently disseminated a two-volume report detailing the status of national progress toward achieving goals established at the 1989 Governors' Education Summit and expanded in 1994 by Congress. While the statistics are discouraging, the compilers probably have already celebrated their achievement.

At the state level, Blueprint 2000 has spawned dozens of data-gathering efforts examining students, schools, teachers, and teacher-preparation programs. This process has been underway for some time, with the demand for information mushrooming along the way. This fall, along with my Florida colleagues, I dutifully reported my perceptions, to help identify reasonable expectations of beginning teachers. The response sheet asked whether each goal was observed in current candidates, and whether it should be expected of them. Items 45 and 46, respectively, addressed this group's ability to "develop short term personal and professional goals relating to learning environments." Like many others, I suspect, I answered in the affirmative, even though I am uncertain as to the items' intent, and my observations have been limited to student interns.

The Principle of Inertia

These two instances illustrate the limitations and pitfalls of fact-finding. Those shortcomings go beyond the obvious preoccupation with amassing, collating, and disseminating data. Pink and Borman (Changing American Education, 1994, p. xiii) cite the tendency of policy makers to be, as they so delicately put it, "disengaged from a commitment to change." So while the National Education Goals Panel reports that 44 percent of all infants born in the United States exhibit one or more health and developmental risks (V. …

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