Before I had children, I taught high school English. My colleagues and I often expressed despair over the push to make data instantly and widely available to our students’ parents, in the form of real-time access to test scores, grades and missing assignments. “Data” was a buzzword meant to imply impartial, measurable information about student learning, and in high school at least, that meant numeric grades.
These “open grade books,” by allowing parents to sit at a computer and monitor their child’s performance, helped fuel a cultural shift that reinforced helicopter parenting. I frequently fielded worried or irate phone calls from a parent about a grade before I’d even met with the student’s class to return the paper in question.
Often, my students would receive text messages during class and either solemnly or self-consciously, depending on their sense of humor, reveal that mom or dad was texting to ask why they hadn’t turned in a recent assignment, or when a quiz we’d just taken would be returned. This was troubling for a variety of reasons. First, it deprived the student of the opportunity to take responsibility for his work. But even more problematically, the data provided something akin to an illusion of information, and in the process, stripped teaching of its human component. Maybe the student had been out of class for a field trip and I already knew to expect the work when she returned, or had told me he’d been up all night crying after an argument with his dad and would get me the work before school the next morning. These were not frequently the reason for missed work, but occasionally the story was more complicated than numbers showed.
I sometimes wondered if I’d have more sympathy for this type of behavior once I had children of my own. But now that I am a parent, I feel just as bombarded by the push for data as I did when I was on the other side.
My 3-year-old daughter is sweet, bright and curious. At my first parent-teacher conference, I was somewhat taken aback to see what I immediately recognized as a state standards skills list to rate how well she was performing (essentially below goal, at goal and above goal). I picked this preschool because of its play-based philosophy, and I knew this document wasn’t something her teacher or even the school had chosen. I felt as uncomfortable receiving the information — which essentially distilled a whole child into a checklist — as I had felt about generating it when I was teaching.
I realize the stakes are significantly lower in preschool than in high school, but the limits of data to represent accomplishments and progress, or even to help educate a child, are similar. Like all of us, my daughter is better at some things (painting) than at others (jumping). I want her to get better at the things that are hard for her, but it’s also okay with…
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