For the last three months, I have watched the teachers and leaders I love (the ones I have witnessed making an undeniable impact on kids) feel defeated by VAM (Value-Added Model) scores and school grades. In supporting them, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my own love-hate relationship with data. I wondered, how does a number yield so much power over me? As a student, I remember countless times when I felt elated or defeated by a score on a test. As a parent, I remember countless times when I felt elated or defeated by my children’s test scores. And certainly, I have felt the agony and ecstasy brought about by the number on the scale or the number on my bank statement. Recently, I have even let the thrill of seeing my book published be diminished by my temptation to check the sales rank. I wondered, how many times have I let numbers represent a judgement of my worth and overshadow the beauty of my experiences?
I wrestled with my data demons until I came up with a strategy. I would end my unhealthy relationship with data and replace it with more empowering practices. So, I did what many people do when they find themselves in a bad relationship, I wrote a break up letter to end my old data ways…
Things have not been good between us for a long time. I have let you control my emotions and let good things in my life be overshadowed by you. I’ve heard it said that numbers don’t lie, but you tell half-truths at times. Decisions about outliers, sample size, measurement error, statistical formulas and cut scores can mislead data users like me. And you can be easily distorted by the way you appear in a chart or graph. Knowledge is power, and I am taking my power back. When presented with you, I will ask questions about your reliability, validity and generalizability. I will pay attention to the context in which you were collected. I will no longer depend on one isolated piece of you.
Data, you’re a tool. Without you, I would rely on my opinions, experiences and beliefs. I know that these are faulty at times and limited at best. I need you to hold up against my own intuitive knowledge as a check against my biases. I need you to tell me if my actions and decisions are moving me toward my goals. I need to use the benefits you offer while keeping you in perspective. You are just one piece of a big, complex, dynamic picture. So, I am letting go of this unhealthy relationship, but maybe we can still be friends.
If you are wrestling with your own data demons, you are not alone. We can’t abandon data informed decision making. We need data to check our biases and blind spots. We can find ways to use data in a balanced and healthy way. We can be savvy data consumers. We can look for the humanity behind the numbers and give ourselves a break. Let’s begin this year armed with knowledge, power and perspective.