The tyranny of data

My work involves a mass of data. We spend an inordinate amount of time looking at levels achieved in tests and comparing these to levels achieved in past years. We get our calculators out and then proceed to work out value added or value decreased. We look at gender, free school meals, ethnicity. We consider pupil mobility and we look to see progress from the last level achieved in the last set of national tests.

We never seem to consider, when we pour over these statistics that they represent a human being. That is somehow forgotten in the midst of treating the data as just a mass of numbers. Once we have the raw data we can look at all of the sub-sets of data and then we can go on a mathematical exploration involving such wonderful things as standard deviations from the norm. We can represent our data as beautiful graphs plotted on a line, or as a scattergraph or indeed a beautifully coloured pie chart.

Now I am aware that the statistically obsessed reading this will be gnashing their teeth by now and saying that this statistical pygmy does not understand the power of our trade. They will say that statistics are just a tool and a powerful one that. They will point to the use made of statistics by business and government and they will say why is the world of education so scared of them?

My retort to this is that they represent developing human beings who have gone through hundreds of hours of schooling. They have possibly come to the test on a day following a huge fight between their mother and her partner. They have had a fall out with their friends on the way to school. They have a terrible cold and can hardly breath no mind answer whether 16 times 9 is equal to 16 less than 160. (Did that make you think?)

I feel that statistics can hide a multitude of things which we haven’t the time or the energy to try and grapple with. I sometimes wonder about the statistic of children who commit suicide because of the pressure of society for them to achieve grades. In the end the statistic of just one  student who does this is one too many.

Last night I  saw a moving Youtube video of Ellen Degeneres talking about four recent cases of young students who have committed suicide because they were bullied because they were gay. These young people will go down in a set of statistics called “deaths before the age of 18” and in the long run they will mean nothing as numbers. But to their parents and family the horrible event of their death and the reason for it will live with them for the rest of their lives.

But statistics do matter. They are the reason for school inspectors to judge schools as failing their pupils. They are published in league tables to compare one school with another. Now they are being used in the United States to actually fire teachers. A fall of a small number of percentage points can be as lethal as a bullet loaded into a gun. The fall is because of bad teaching… what else can explain it? The fall is of 3%…… but wait a minute…. that represents how many children? What were the events on the test day? What kind of things are happening in the lives of the children involved? What might be happening in the teacher’s life?

We must not ask questions. Statistics are  numbers and numbers are scientific aren’t they? We live in a world of numbers and statistics can compare school to school, teacher to teacher and of course country to country (we all want to be Finnish these days!)

To me though I feel that we have lost our humanity somewhere along the road to being ruled by statistics. This is not to say that they can tell us things but they should not dictate what we do, especially where people’s livelihoods are at risk. I was told that data does not provide answers but only raises questions…. if that is the case then why do we sack people because of a drop in their student’s test scores? Surely we should investigate circumstances and not just bow down to the tyranny of the data.

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One thought on “The tyranny of data

  1. Try to include a school photo of each child in their data whether it is in a database on your computer or a file folder on your desk. It helps keep them in perspective when you are looking at the data they have generated.

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