Saturday, 9 March 2019

Data isn't always a demon

I've seen and heard quite a lot recently about data being a bad thing and driving high workloads. Indeed Ofsted nod towards this in their most recent framework, emphasising that they plan to ignore internal data about current students as part of their inspections (more here).

There are also loads of blogs and other comments about data being bad, a waste of time and a massive source of workload, an example is here.

It's now my 5th year as the SLT member responsible for data at my school. As such if I believe all of the hype I could be viewed as the source of all evil in my school, but that misses the point substantially. As with most things we need to seek balance.

Misuse and mismanagement is the demon
Data as a thing is not the issue. The issue is when data is over collected, over interpreted and its importance is over inflated so that it takes a disproportionate amount of time and resources to create and monitor.

Weighing the pig more often does not make it grow more quickly. Equally never weighing the pig leaves the farmer uncertain of whether the pig is growing at the appropriate rate. The farmer needs some data about the pig to work out if it is being fed enough, if it is healthy, and when it is ready to go to market.

A world without data would be a journey without reference points
If we take the "data is bad" knee jerk reaction to its logical conclusion we would never assess anything, never measure anything, never have an opportunity to step back to see if our actions are working.

Sailing hopefully without reference to instruments or other guidance is a great way to get lost. As sailors have discovered since we first took to the seas, taking appropriate measurements is a great way to stay on course. The important bit is that the measures are appropriate, taken at suitable time intervals, and the appropriate corrective action is taken in response.

Well you would say that wouldn't you
Of course, I'm a maths teacher, with a past career in Engineering, and have responsibility for data in the school - I'm bound to say it's important as it's part of my job.

However it's not just my perspective...having the right data around you is part of managing anything effectively - that applies to all aspects of managing, every single business, in every single sector. Managers need to have data to determine if their organisation is working effectively, where there may be strengths, weaknesses, and also where there might be opportunities or risks.

We need to fight misuse of data, not just all data
By railing against data without focus we run the risk of branding it all as bad, and that's simply not true. Lots of data linked to schools is extremely useful both at a leadership/management and at a classroom teacher level, but if we continue to brand it all as bad we undermine or ignore the good uses.

Misuse or mismanagement of data occurs for various reasons:
  1. It's collected too often - Things take time to develop in schools, collection more frequently than 6 weeks is highly unlikely to result in meaningful changes, and even then 6 weeks may be too often depending on what is being measured - appropriate frequency is vital. A good manager will try to make the frequency appropriate to the measure and its intended use.
  2. It's collected but not used - absolutely no point in collecting data that is going to be ignored or if nothing happens as a result of it being collected. It's a waste of time for all involved.
  3. Its accuracy is over estimated. Any data generated internally by schools is subject to errors, particularly assessment data for students. There will be subjective elements to assessments that vary across teachers, there will be judgements applied to turn raw marks into grade boundaries that may shape grades inappropriately. Just because it's data doesn't mean it produced an accurate summary of a cohort. Just because a particular approach to data appeared accurate and appropriate when applied one year does not mean it will always be accurate for future years.
  4. Its biased, intentionally or accidentally it is very easy to bias a set of data. For example when asked to forecast a GCSE grade teachers will often bias their predictions based on the message that they want the student to hear - some will over estimate to motivate and encourage the students, some will under estimate to spur on the students to do better - both are potentially incorrect, and either one can have an impact on the student that is the exact opposite of what was intended. When rolled up at a department or school level these predictions can be wildly inaccurate.
  5. Summaries such as percentages are used inappropriately (see this post about percentages and their misuse)
There are other reasons data can be misused, but probably the biggest over and above those listed above is to use data as the end of a conversation. In a professional environment data should be part of the professional journey, used to inform alongside other sources of information and judgement. If we resort to only using a piece of data to sum up an individual's professional worth, or a student's educational achievements then we have missed the point entirely - it's an evidence base to use as part of a much wider dialogue.

With any data we need to ask 2 questions:
  1. Do we believe what it's telling us?
    1. If so, why do we believe it - what other information supports it?
    2. If not, why don't we believe it - what other information conflicts with it?
  2. What do we need to do next? - we have this data, "so what?
So what am I saying?
I suppose the bottom line here is not all data is bad, but misuse or mismanagement of it is very bad.

Effective use of assessment and the data that this generates is a central part of being an effective teacher at a class level and we mustn't try to hide away from this behind a "data is bad, just let me get on and teach" defence. Doing that would cut off a vital source of information for the class teacher. If class teachers don't understand their class's data then we need to train them in how to use it and work with it in a useful way - that's a CPD need not an issue with the data.

Similarly effective use of data is a key part of leading and managing a school at all levels, but the operative word is "effective". I'll acknowledge that too often in education data is used ineffectively and inappropriately - that is what we need to fight against. But we mustn't throw away the vital information that data can give us alongside this fight. Data isn't a stick to bash people over the head with, it's a tool to be used skilfully to help manage an organisation alongside all the other tools that we need.

We need more people using data as a force for good...