A question looms over the use of data to assess student and school performance: what types of data best represent student experiences and the actual happenings of schools? Such questions about the uses of school data are increasingly relevant to public education in the region. Throughout the community conversations that inform this article, it was evident that data which reflects particular outcomes can not be abstracted from important contextual factors. One can not, for instance, take data about student attendance and draw useful conclusions about the students or school without understanding what students experience when making their way to the school. It appears that in an effort to efficiently craft solutions, educational data is reduced to a set of numbers that depersonalize. As one community member put it, “how do you quantify that, how do you quantify getting on a bus at 5 am… our values and morals and dignity are far beyond who we are within a statistic, but I think sometimes it can be hard to explain that.”
Fortunately, producing some of the necessary contextual information to provide meaningful insights can be a part of the data collection process. For many community members, the inclusion of qualitative, narrative data–alongside quantitative data–provides deeper and more useful insights into the needs of students and faculty and the actual reality of experiencing life inside of schools. One DPS alumni noted that the triumph of quantitative data over qualitative data has diminished the ability of community members to interpret educational data in a way that centers human experience. As he noted, “I feel like qualitative data is a more humanizing way of gathering data and lived experiences can say a lot more than just numbers.” By giving people the opportunity to include relevant contextual facts through personal narrative, data can provide novel insight into public education .
One community member described feeling as though schools have a very narrow definition of what counts as usable data which pushes against the inclusion of qualitative data. A former DPS student put it this way: “my first thought of school of data, I hesitate to say narrow-minded, but in the sense of how many students are in a classroom, what do those test scores look like, what are the demographics, and I know that does not give an accurate photograph of a school, what is going on in that school or even for teachers… even when we’re looking at data it doesn’t always represent what’s actually going on even if you’re looking at a totally accurate number.” Yet another community member echoed this alum’s perspective, noting that quantitative data does have a place in informing our understanding of education but that it should be used along with people’s experiences, not as a replacement for it. It seems clear that numerical data about school outcomes should be combined with information about personal experiences in schools; otherwise, leaving out individuals’ stories impoverishes the resources decision-makers can utilize when coming to conclusions about any next steps.
Data for Community Trust
The risks associated with a narrow focus on quantitative data cuts both ways: it minimizes people’s experiences and it provides fodder for those who want to deny the severity of unintended consequences of public school practices. One community member noted that despite the purported neutrality of statistical data, they can be framed in ways that provide backing for pre-constructed narratives which conceal structural or systemic problems. A CCSD alum suggested that oftentimes in pursuit of reputational clout, school districts, especially those that are considered well-performing, have a vested interest in framing quantitative findings in ways that support the district’s standing. Importantly, this alum believes that including context can offer a remedy to data manipulation and denial of people’s experiences. They put it this way, “ There are plenty of quantitative data points that could tell you that the system of education is built to criminalize Black students, that the amount of teachers are predominantly white and they hold a bias against Black and brown students. The thing is people don’t want to believe it and…that’s why qualitative data can be very powerful…it connects to emotion. I think it connects to the human experience, and it’s a lot harder to deny. In that sense, qualitative data is really important in ways that quantitative data simply can’t be.”
If schools or districts are perceived to be framing data in ways that protect their reputation, especially by neglecting narratives which provide context, community members may also perceive nefarious intent in the use of data. One community member pointed to the power dynamics inherent in the use of data, noting that not all parties have access to the same data at the same time. A DPS alum adds that “sometimes data is weaponized. I think about who uses data and who has access to data and who knows how to consume data in a way that is intentional… I’ve seen data be weaponized to change a narrative or change a decision or when we’re talking about parent engagement or family engagement, data often becomes weaponized against specific communities.”
Community Access to Data
The importance of how data are collected and framed became clear as many community members noted that the most useful application of educational data is in relation to school accountability. By understanding what type of data a school or school district collects and presents, one can see what schools find valuable and what they think they ought to be held accountable for. Many community members voiced a shared interest in ensuring that the data collected by schools and districts reflect the values salient to teachers, students, parents, and community members. As one activist who has pursued the inclusion of community voice in educational data put it, “we started this dashboard community grassroots effort trying to pull stakeholders together to talk about this dashboard and to continue to build a relationship with DPS… being thoughtful about what should be measured, how should it be measured, what are the impacts, what are the best practices, what are the exemplars out there – not reinventing the wheel,”
Frequently, educational data is presented through a website that prioritizes statistical comparisons in order to present selected findings. Much of the contestation between community members and school districts, like DPS, has been about what data points are important to the community and should be presented on a community-facing dashboard. One community member that is actively engaged in promoting community voices in the creation of dashboards believes that through the inclusion of community voices school districts can get more buy-in from the community that the data being collected serves their interests. As she put it, through the inclusion of community voices “you’ll have more buy-in from the community, you’ll have more buy-in from school leaders if they have had a chance to say this is what I want the community to know about my school. So that when it’s all said and done the community can point to it, like ‘oh yeah, I said I want to know about that and it’s there’.” Despite community efforts and engagement from DPS, ensuring that community voice is reflected in a district dashboard has proven to be quite difficult. In part, this has been because turnover at DPS has made it difficult for community activists and communities to get traction in seeing their changes implemented in the dashboard.
For instance, one parent of a student in DPS voiced concerns that given the existing dashboards, it can be easy to present a school as thriving when it is failing many of its most marginalized students. They described this dynamic as the creation of ‘fake green schools.’ Due to the types of data informing a school’s rating, some dashboards can begin to reflect an evaluation of the students instead of the services and accomplishments of a school. As one community member noted, this is a problem because dashboards meant to hold schools accountable for how they’re interacting with students, parents, and communities can be reduced to representations of which schools have the most affluent and privileged student populations. A school leader tasked with reimagining data in schools noted that the data she and most of the school’s parents are most interested in reflect the growth of students, not necessarily where they find themselves in comparison to other students within the district. As she put it, “it was all about how to hold a school accountable for things in many ways we have no control over… these systems are not telling the true story which is how are we growing our kids and are we growing them at a fast enough rate? Because context doesn’t matter on these, you’re just seen as a red school in status and I don’t think that tells the kids’ story, and it’s not data that’s actually very useful, it just tells you how they walked in the door.”
Another educator noted that as a teacher, it is quite difficult to be held accountable to metrics that do not reflect their impact on student development but rather shift the focus to the outcome of the student. As he put it, “data can be both numbers and words. I think you need both. You need the numbers but you also need the words, like the humanization that goes along with it. Being a teacher for the last couple of years as a new teacher, there are so many statistics… What is that number, what does that number do and what does it tell me? You have to have that written part so it can’t be just the number, it has to be the qualitative part as well.” It seems that community members and educators are most interested in using educational data to have reliable insight into what is happening inside of schools, though the current use of educational data is unreliable in providing that type of insight.