Data Driven Disaster

By Jane Weinkrantz

“’Almost one out of every four people in the world is Chinese, you know, even though many of them might not look it. …This means” Gold’s stepmother went on informatively, “that of the seven of us here today, almost two of us are Chinese, even though we may not look it.’”----Joseph Heller, Good as Gold

Lately, we hear so much about the “failure of American education.” Yet, to me the most compelling evidence that American schools are not what they ought to be is the unsophisticated and one-dimensional solution that our most influential reformers keep suggesting.  I am talking about the powerful and far-reaching Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their eagerness to revamp American education through the application of data to teaching practices. Gates, who is proclaimed to be a genius by his admirers, demonstrates some severe deficits in critical thinking when it comes to education. Most likely, the teacher who let Gates get away with such slipshod thinking skills is retired or deceased by now; otherwise, he would have to fire her.

            In a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek (“Teacher’s Pest” 7/19-7/25 2010), Daniel Golden explained the philosophy of the Gates Foundation as follows, “[The foundation] has since shifted its considerable weight behind an emerging consensus---shared by U.S. Education Secretary and Gates ally Arne Duncan---that quality of teaching affects student performance and that increasing achievement is as simple as removing bad teachers, identifying good ones and rewarding them with more money.” The results of this philosophy have been harmful to the teaching profession and provided questionable results for education.

 Not too long ago, I wrote about the mass firing of our colleagues in Central Falls , RI as part of the “turnaround plan” to improve student achievement by removing the “bad teachers.” Ultimately, many of the teachers were retained as the Central Falls district went forward with the “transformation plan” instead which, with the cooperation of the union and the district, changed school practices without firing the faculty. You would think New England would have learned a lesson from the unnecessary drama of the Central Falls affair, yet six months later 38 of 50 teachers at Blackstone Elementary School in Boston were removed as part of another turnaround. Heather Gorman, a fourth grade teacher told The New York Times, “We had several good teachers asked to leave…including my sister who’s been a special-ed teacher 22 years.”

The new principal of the school, Stephen Zrike, who swung the ax, stated, “I’d say definitely good teachers were let go…I wouldn’t doubt a lot will be excellent in other places.” According to Blackstone’s school report card, 95.2% of the teachers were “highly qualified” and 94.6% of the core courses were taught by “highly qualified teachers.” How can a principal who is new to a school cavalierly take away the livelihood of experienced professionals?

Well, the blessing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation makes it that much easier. Boston schools are hiring new teachers at their struggling schools through a Gates funded non-profit organization called Teach Plus. Teach Plus seeks to change the culture of urban schools by sending teams of new teachers to staff them.  What becomes of the previous teachers is anyone’s guess. Teach Plus selects teachers who are at the early stages of their careers. A small number of them---20 per city--- become teaching fellows. By fellows, Teach Plus states on their webpage, We seek to attract teachers who are passionate about their work and their students. We seek teachers who have had success with students and who are leaders in and outside the classroom. We seek teachers who have the time, energy, and communication skills to be effective advocates for the teaching profession.”  Since Teach Plus is retained by the Boston Public Schools i.e. the boss, how sincerely can management be taken in their search for “effective advocates for the teaching profession?” My personal favorite “effective advocates for the teaching profession” aren’t a group of 20 employer selected teachers in “years 3-10” of their careers---a demographic which would automatically disqualify me since I started teaching in 1989---the most effective advocate I can think of is my union!  Doesn’t it seem obvious that professional advocates hired and assembled by management to further the Teach Plus priorities of  “retention, specifically developing a second stage of the teaching career, promoting high standards and professionalism in teaching, teacher leadership roles and differentiated pay” are only advocates for management’s vision of the teaching profession? True advocates for effective teaching develop their priorities from experience in the classroom, not by mouthing the theories of spectator reformers. Does Teach Plus really think they have invented the promotion of high standards and professionalism in education?

            Furthermore, Teach Plus includes in their FAQs a question that most surely is on the tip of your tongue, “How will teachers become advocates for the profession?” Their answer is: “Fellows will attract public attention to issues related to teacher retention and the next generation of teachers by producing a series of policy briefs. Teach Plus will ensure visibility for Fellows’ work by connecting them to a broad network of education leaders and policy makers and by hosting a series of public events and targeted meetings.”

            Are these publicized policy briefs going to be the result of teacher experience or documents supporting the agenda that Teach Plus wants to impose? Would teachers independently come to the conclusion that differentiated pay will improve their profession? Would they conclude that creating a second stage of the teaching career will best be accomplished by firing people happy to remain at the same stage of the same career for 22 years or more?

How many times have you heard the expression “teach the whole child?” Yet, the data driven view of education does not ever acknowledge the whole child and the outside influences that informed his or her attitude and aptitude towards learning such as parents, peers, society and the economy that also shape our nation’s students. Recent reform takes a fraction of the child’s life, the slice that interfaces with an effective or not-so-effective teacher and uses that fractional child, as the hypothetical beneficiary of data driven instruction.

Where is the whole child in Gates’ data deluged schools? Noticeably scarce in Teach Plus’s website and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Empowering Effective Teachers,” ( is any mention of students and what their lives are like before and after school. Instead, there are charts, graphs and repetition of the term “data-driven.” We can hardly be surprised that Bill and Melinda Gates are fond of data; look what it’s done for them professionally and financially. Sometimes their surprise at how not everything can be broken down into data is downright naïve and adorable.  Consider the following: “Some teacher-effectiveness measures are qualitative---classroom observations, peer reviews, student surveys---and are difficult to convert to a consistent scale.” Or perhaps should not be converted to a consistent scale at all? Teaching never was, is or will be quantified in spread sheet results and it is simple-minded and reductive to think otherwise. What is so empowering about making teaching into accounting?

                        Golden writes, “Judging teachers on student performance creates a litany of such practical problems, from how to assess progress in subjects such as art, shop or phys. ed to accounting for the mobility of inner-city families. In Memphis where Gates has invested $90 million, schools superintendent Kriner Cash says one third of students move during the year, which means their gains can’t necessarily be credited to one school, much less one teacher. “  That is just one example of why trying to trace student achievement back to a specific classroom experience is just not possible.  In Florida ’s Hillsborough district, Anna Brown, a district official who was presenting the Gates plan to a group of teachers was caught without an answer when “one teacher of twelfth graders wanted to know if she would be penalized for senior slump. Music instructors questioned the district’s decision to evaluate them on their students’ grasp of music theory instead of instrumental proficiency.”  Music theory can be assessed with multiple choice questions; instrumental proficiency cannot.

A recent student of mine was extremely passive and uninterested for two of the three years that he was in my class. In the third year, he started to perform exceptionally well. One of his classmates asked him what had changed. He said, “I thought I ought to try to get what I can out of this.” Was I an ineffective teacher for the first two years and an effective one the final year? Or, more likely, did an accumulation of forces we will never really be able to identify inspire him to put more effort into his education? Should I get merit pay for that? Thanks, but no thanks.  Consider this: In the course of my career I’ve had perhaps a half dozen capable students who never lifted a finger academically because of a clearly articulated desire to defy their parents’ high expectations. Were their failures my failures? If I convinced them to succeed in my class, was it the result of my teaching skills or my skills as an amateur therapist?  Should teachers’ jobs and pay be tied to an ability to talk with an angry student about his or her parents or is such an exchange treading outside of education and into therapy? Data may help us understand what baseline academic skills students have mastered, but it is not going to explain why some kids try and some don’t or even differentiate between trying and succeeding, trying and failing, not trying and succeeding and not trying and failing.

While overemphasizing standardized test data, the Gates approach discards important student data that should be taken into account when assessing a school’s progress. According to the 2008-2009 Boston Public School’s “Focus on Children” report, at William Blackstone Elementary School where 38 of 50 teachers were let go, 26.7% of students qualify for special education services while 32% are eligible for bilingual education.  The student mobility rate is 18.9%. Of third graders at Blackstone who qualify for free or a reduced price lunch, 64% scored in the “Warning/Failing” range on the ELA while 27% scored in the “Needs Improvement” range. In other words, less than 10% of third grade students who received free or reduced price lunch passed their standardized language arts test. In third grade math, 59% of free/reduced price lunch recipients scored “Warning/Failing” and 22% scored “Needs Improvement.” In grade 5 science, 41% of the free/reduced price lunch students scored “Warning/Failing” and 57% scored “Needs Improvement.”  No one who received a free or reduced price lunch scored in the advanced level of the 5th grade science test.

Teach Plus seeks to improve the culture of urban schools like Blackstone, yet only six miles away in nearby Brookline, at the Edith C. Baker school, an elementary school with average special education (11.8%) and higher than average ESL enrollment figures, (35.8%) the school’s NCLB performance rating is “very high’ and the culture needs no improvement. In Brookline ,  teacher salaries begin at nearly $40,000 and top out just under $84,000 in a state where the average teacher’s salary is $63,000. The district’s average elementary classroom has 20.2 students. Thus, with good salary and reasonable student teacher ratios, Edith C. Baker is the type of school that should attract excellent teachers. Even so, the 7.3% of students with low incomes scored consistently lower on their standardized tests than their average and high- income peers. While the average scaled score for 4th grade reading in 2009-2010 was 234, it was 215 for low- income students. In 4th grade mathematics, the average scaled score at Edith C. Baker was 220; for low -income students it was 206. 215 and 206 are not only lower than the school average, but also lower than the national average. In other words, even school districts with “very high” performance ratings struggle to educate poor children as effectively as they do middle class and well-to-do children.

What can we take from this data? Maybe educational reform organizations, such as the Gates Foundation, are spending way too much time meditating on the pedagogical navel when they should be analyzing the struggles outside of school so many American children face and how that affects their academic progress.

I don’t believe Bill Gates is an evil man. I believe he is a generous and well meaning, yet data driven kind of guy who is trying to improve education in terms he understands. In 2005, Bill Gates, told NPR, “ For all the cool things that a person can do with a PC, there are lots of other ways we can put our creativity and intelligence to work to improve our world. There are still far too many people in the world whose most basic needs go unmet. Every year, for example, millions of people die from diseases that are easy to prevent or treat in the developed world.”

When it comes to unmet needs, let’s take a hard look at the developed world. According to The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (http://www. in 2008, 19% of American children lived in poverty; of those, 8% lived in extreme poverty, subsisting on half or less than half of an income below the poverty level. Fifty two percent of American children lived in “food insecure” households in 2008. Forty three percent of American households with children had physically inadequate housing, crowded housing or a housing cost burden of over 30% of the household income. (It is difficult to get accurate numbers on homeless children because homeless families are not generally available to be surveyed; however, CNN reported last year that one in 50 American children is homeless.) Only 75% of American children have at least one working parent. 7.3 million children lacked health care in 2008. Am I the only one who finds this data more urgent than calculating how many standards-based assessments a teacher gives in a month? A child who has food can concentrate enough to study. A child who has a safe home has a place to study. A child with health care will be well enough to study.  The less time you have to worry about basic survival, the more likely you are to be able to concentrate and learn. You don’t need to be Bill Gates to figure that out; in fact, it seems that he can’t.  

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