The Problem with RTTT’s Big Data Banks: Garbage In Garbage Out — The Data can Simply be Wrong!

One of the RTTT mandates for states is the implementation of massive data storage and reporting systems for students that extends from preschool through their college years.  Education reformers’ devotion to the infallibility of data is misguided and troubling.  I remember a quote from my days in a college computer programming class — a long time ago now: “Garbage In Garbage Out” (GIGO).  The concept was quite simple and highly understandable and still applies today.  It is still used to explain the problems inherent when humans make decisions based on faulty or incomplete data.

Valerie Strauss shared an article by New York principal Carol Burris that illustrates just how problematic it is when big brother Orwellian data systems are used to drive education reform decisions.  The New York State Education Department released a report recently that demonstrates the problems associated with GIGO errors.  While the NYSED soon realized their mistake and notified school districts that the data was incorrect, one must wonder how many GIGO – type errors actually occur within data systems and the egregious problems that result when policy makers cite faulty or incomplete data as the rationale for policy decisions.  How many times does the data go unchallenged and, thus, uncorrected?

This most recent example of GIGO error ridden data is NYSED’s report about the number of students leaving high school to attend — and remain — in college.  Carol Burris questioned the low percentage of students graduating from her high school in 2012 that were currently successfully enrolled in college as reported by the NYSED.  She quickly realized that a number of her most successful students were left off the list entirely.  And it was chilling to see the extent of the data reported for students who were on the list: whether or not they received free or reduced lunch, their special education status, their race, the name of the college or university they attended, and sometimes their major.  Why were some students left off the list?  Because, in some cases, they did not receive financial aid or perhaps because they did not require remediation once in college.  And some colleges refuse to share data.

What was the potential fall-out of this GIGO error by the NYSED?  Once again, public schools would be blamed for not adequately preparing students to be college and career ready and, thus, a ready argument for the Common Core State Standards would be on hand.  GIGO errors like this have too often been left to stand and have been used to perpetuate the zeitgeist that all public schools are failing.

As a matter of fact, the data used by the Reagan commission that created A Nation at Risk can be cited as the GIGO error that culminated in the freight train of systemic education reform we’ve been living with since the early 1980s.  The National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) relied heavily on SAT data to draw their conclusion in 1983 that the education system in America was an abject failure. While citing statistical data that SAT scores had been dropping since the early 1960s, they ignored the very real data about the societal changes that led to these drops.  Was that data available to the NCEE?  Absolutely.  In 1977 the College Board, the organization that oversees the SATs,  published their own report explaining that the drop in scores was largely due to changes in the number and type of students who were taking the exam in preparation for attending college.  Far from being a negative phenomenon, this was a positive reflection on a nation that had for too many years excluded students of color, students from low income homes, and women from realizing the dream of higher education.  With larger numbers of diverse students taking the SAT, it was only logical that, at least for a period of time, scores would drop.  The SAT scores could not, therefore, be used as an adequate measure of school or instructional quality.  The NCEE’s lack of acknowledgement of the College Board’s findings about SAT score declines is a clear example of a GIGO data error — and one that had a disastrous impact on education policies in the U.S.  Their use of incomplete data to draw decisions and make policy recommendations in A Nation at Risk has brought public schools in the U.S. to the brink of destruction as their conclusions have gone largely unchallenged by the federal government, policy makers, and corporate education reformers who persist in declaring that our education system is a complete failure.  Even when William Turnbull, Distinguished Scholar in Residence for the Educational Testing Service, elaborated on the College Board’s findings and published his report Student Change, Program Change: Why the SAT Scores Kept Falling in 1985, his report was largely ignored by policy makers.

Federal education reformers had an opportunity again in the early 90’s to clarify their position on education quality in the U.S.  The Sandia Laboratories was commissioned to write a report about the status of the American education system by Secretary of Energy James Watkins.  Far from echoing the findings of the NCEE and A Nation at Risk, Sandia researchers found that there was no need for systemic education reform across the country, citing some of the same data the College Board and Turnbull relied on for their respectives reports.  However, by the early 1990s, the federal Department of Education was well entrenched with systemic education reformers hell-bent on radically reforming the education system and the Sandia Report could simply not be tolerated.  The report was buried.  One can only wonder the outcome for education policy in our country if the DOE had officially published the report with the same accolades as A Nation at Risk.  What a triumph of patriotism!!  The headlines could have read “Guess what, America?  New Report Says Your Education System is a Source of Pride!”

That was not to be, however.  It was best to squelch research that contradicted education reformers in their quest to free-marketize public schools and radically reform the education system.  What was needed was a steady stream of reports that labeled public schools as a total failure.  Stalwart critic of education reformers, Gerald Bracey began publishing annual reports in 1991 on the condition of public education.  His reports were an annual event for 18 years.  Bracey revealed to America the misuse of data by policy makers intent on destroying our education system and he wrote about the Sandia Report debacle.  He passed away in 2009 and his voice is missed.  He angered a lot of education reformers with his truth speaking, but he continued to speak out on behalf of supporters of public education, teachers, parents, and children.  His many books are a good place to start when questioning the GIGO data continually trotted out by education reformers.  And you may want to go to Susan Ohanian’s website to learn more about Gerald Bracey’s life and work.  Her index of tributes to Dr. Bracey is a touching reminder of his legacy.