Sunday, August 16, 2015

Backpacks for Clueless Parents

Over at Getting Smart, a website devoted to selling educational product, guest writer Aimee Rogstad Guidera makes her case for more data collection for each student-- because it's what parents want.

Parents are eager for information about their child’s education. As a mom, I want to know if my daughter is struggling in math before she comes home in tears. I need information to support my child’s learning at home, and to support my child and her teacher in making the best decisions for her learning in the classroom.

Maybe I just don't get it, but I'm inclined to think that if you didn't know your child was having trouble in math before the coming-home-in-tears part, you're just not paying attention. I have heard this pitch enough times to make me occasionally wonder if there is, in fact, some place where teachers keep every scrap of information carefully hoarded, students never speak to their parents about school, parents never ask about school, and all parent requests for conferences and information are denied by all school personnel. Maybe there is some place where parents are so deeply clueless and helpless that they have no idea how their students are doing.

Or maybe Guidera is the CEO and President of the Data Quality Campaign, a group interested in student data and funded by the Gates Foundation, the Waltons, the Dells, and the Ford Foundation. They do have some rules about how such data should be kept in a safe lockbox, but they are clearly Big Data fans.

Guidera is advocating for student data backpacks-- little (or not so little) bundles of data that just follow students around, providing parents with all sorts of longitudinal data (because, again, parents don't know much about their own children).

Guidera says the backpack should be available, timely, portable, secure and understandable, and none of that sounds unreasonable until you start thinking about how it's going to work.

First, the data itself. I'm a fan of transparency-- my school makes our electronic gradebook accessible to parents, so my students' families are able to log on and see their student's current grade-by-grade standing in my class. That's a high level of transparency, but my data isn't any more granular than that-- there are no copies of the work on line, nor does the grade break down to anything other than the grade itself. Of course, my students are able to take their work home, and parents who want further clarification can email me or call.

Why is the data not more detailed and specific? Because there are only twenty-four hours in the day. If you want me (as some Big Data folks do) to tag every single item on every single assignment and test with the exact standard number (which may well have been part of the original intent of Common Core), then you have just tripled the time involved in creating and recording every assignment.

If we somehow accomplish that feat (who knows-- maybe I'm finally getting an administrative assistant), that backpack is chock full of data. It exists. It's out there. And as a parent who works in education, I'm not going to be moved by all the assurances on the planet that the data will only be used for purposes I approve of. Major corporations and the US Government can't keep critical information secure; a school district that has to hire IT guys who will settle for far less than the going rate has no chance.

Is there a huge payoff from the data backpack that would justify the risk? In a word-- no.

Look, what are the two questions that the vast majority of parents want answers to?

1) Is my kid doing okay?

2) If not, what does she need help with?

Can anybody think of a reason that the classroom teacher could not handle both of those questions? Anybody?

Yes, I can think of one reason-- the teacher is not competent. And you know what? If the teacher is not competent to answer those two questions, the teacher is certainly not competent to carefully tag and bag and process the detailed data of assignments and tests and etc.

Likewise, a parent who is incapable of communicating with her own child or with that child's teacher is unlikely to be adept and unpacking the data in the backpack.

I don't think student data backpacks serve the interests of parents or teachers. Here are the groups that I think data backpacks might serve.

1) People who are neither the parents, the teachers or the students, but who would still really like to get their hands on that sweet, sweet data.

2) School operators who would like to "teacher-proof" their classrooms by hiring warm bodies and saying, "No, you don't have to know what you're doing. Just unpack the box, deliver the packaged content lessons, administer the pre-written assessments, and enter the data. The software will do the rest."

3) School operators who want to make parents go away and leave them alone. "No, Mrs. Wassamatta, you don't need to schedule a conference. Everything you need is right there in the data backpack. Go look at that and just leave us alone."

4) People who want to market and sell data backpack software.

My advice to Ms. Guidera-- put down the backpack and pick up the phone.

UPDATE: Leonie Haimson reminds me that the student data backpack is straight out of model legislation by ALEC. So you know it's all about educational excellence, and not about ways to leverage fake education reform into great profit-generating possibilities. Nossiree.


  1. Totally agree with all your reasoning.

  2. I believe most parents would be horrified by this cold and impersonal vision of education. Not only do they get more than enough data as it is, but it's important to preserve the humanity in the process. Parents are always welcome to come in and look teachers in the eye to discuss the academic and social progress of their children. Not only is a "data backpack" a privacy concern, it's dismissive of the importance of relationships and communication in education. It's like suggesting robots should replace doctors....not very nice when your future is on the line.

  3. Dear Mr. Greene:

    Once again, I think this issue comes across as people arguing about unsupported opinions. The Reformers say, "Parents want information about their child to come from Standardized Tests." The Teachers say," Parents want information about their child to come from teachers." No one has any data, though, such as a survey conducted by a respectable organization using a large enough group of diverse parents to make their case. Is there anyone out there who knows of such a respectable organization that could be asked (by someone they would respond to) to do a survey like this? Oh-Parents would have to choose. The question could be stated as, "Which is your preferred way to find out information about your child.? Check one: _ Standardized Test results _Teacher Report Cards and Conferences." Of course everyone wants everything, and wrapped in decorative paper and a bow, but they would have to choose, tests or teachers, as their preferred choice. Then we would have facts.

    Hope someone can help us all out here.

    Thank you.


    1. Leila,

      This parent thinks both are very useful. Here is a story to illustrate that idea. My middle son was extremely frustrated with the way mathematics was taught in his per-calculus class in high school and as a result he received a poor (for him in mathematics) grade. At the end of that year he also took the math MAP exam and scored 298 out of 300. Which is a better measure of his understanding of mathematics? As it turned out, the standardized test score was a much better measure of his mathematics ability than the grade in the class, but we did think enough of the teacher assigned grade to have our son talk with a mathematics professor for an hour or so before we decided to have him take his remaining mathematics classes at our local university rather than his high school.

    2. I understand what you're saying, though the data "backpack" the post is talking about is much more involved than just a standardized test. Sometimes a certain teacher is not a good fit for certain students, and sometimes standardized tests don't show the student's potential either. I'm glad your son is getting better instruction more suited to him.

    3. Rebecca,

      I was addressing Leila's post about having parents pick between learning about their child's performance from either the teacher or teacher report cards and conferences. Both seem like the way to go.

      There is a lot of good evidence that boys do better on standardized exams than their teacher generated grades would predict and girls do better on teacher generated grades than would be predicted by their standardized exam scores. Perhaps the answer to Leila's survey would depend on the gender of the student.

    4. There's nothing wrong with having multiple measures, though I think Peter's right about the drawbacks to the data backpack. But you may be right about boys in general doing better on standardized tests than on teacher-generated grades. I don't know any studies on it, and I doubt it would be true for every single kid, but my son did much better on the ACT than anyone, including me, would have expected. He even did better than my girls on reading comprehension. I was flabbergasted because he sure didn't show this in school. On the other hand, the studies that say grades are a better predictor of college success than tests may also be right. My son didn't do that well with grades in college, though he did do pretty well in most of the classes he was interested in. His problem was always motivation. But nothing wrong with multiple measures.

  4. Peter: your analysis is spot on, as usual. Student data backpacks as promoted by the Data Quality Campaign the Gates Foundation, and ALEC, are for the benefit of the data collectors, data brokers, ed tech companies, and all those who would like to automatize and mechanize education and outsource instruction and assessment into private hands. They certainly were not designed for the benefit of parents (or teachers) in mind. Moreover, there is the real risk that the more data goes with your child through his life, he may be stereotyped and profiled based on past misdeeds or perceived weaknesses.

  5. "Or maybe Guidera is the CEO and President of the Data Quality Campaign..."

    And maybe this is why she thinks parents don't know their kid is having trouble in math.

    CEO's and Presidents of stuff have Nannies. Nannies know the kid has trouble with math. Guidera thinks all parents have nannies and all parents also don't know about their kids so Someone Else needs to let them in on the secret.