In her last year of a degree program in Justice Studies, my daughter took a course called “Surveillance in Society.” The readings and discussion were around intrusions into personal privacy and data made possible by technology. Dear Daughter and I had many amusing conversations about some of the assignments—for example, “Are Bar Codes the Mark of the Beast? Discuss.”—which struck me as paranoid in the extreme. Dr. Crazy, as she called the professor, was obsessed with our imminent loss of civil liberty, always urging his undergrads to be suspicious of anyone asking for personal information, and, presumably, scanning the sky for black helicopters.
In an earlier blog, I mentioned Gary Stager’s observations on the three ways schools use technology: #1) to make the system more efficient and attractive, #2) to enhance and highlight teaching, or #3) to give students control over their own learning. I think Bill Ferriter and I have been talking, mainly, about #2—but I have been thinking a lot about #1, the use of technology to gather data and “streamline” normal school processes, like testing, attendance, scheduling and grading, and to present an image of a “21st century school.” Here is a very simple story about data collection and our (perhaps naïve) belief that All Technology is Good.
Ten years ago, my district opened a new middle school, full of state-of-the-art technological systems. We were the envy of the other buildings, with fully networked software to handle all our data needs. We got some training and the big pitch—our new procedures would save time, paper and man-hours, give us more accurate data, impress parents with e-communications, and make life smoother for the secretaries who had been handling many of those chores.
Under Old Attendance
procedures, every teacher took attendance once, at the same time every morning,
recorded it in their grade/attendance book, and sent a student to the office,
with an attendance form, printed on scrap paper from recycle bins. Secretaries recorded
these on a master list, and handled absence data for students who came/left
during the day. Teachers got a copy of the master list, to help confirm
absences when students needed to make up work.
Under New, Improved Attendance procedures, every teacher had a computer, with separate attendance book and gradebook functions. Teachers were now required to take attendance every hour, and enter absences and tardies on the computer within a five-minute window. We were not allowed to keep the attendance program open on our computer desktops (because our gradebooks, protected by the same password, might be accessed by devious students)—so we had to log in every hour. Because this was 1998, the server’s horsepower was severely strained by 40 teachers logging in simultaneously, and it would take 30-60 seconds for the program to load. Teachers who forgot to take attendance within 5 minutes would be called by the office (where a secretary now sat, monitoring the data coming in every hour), disrupting teachers’ lessons. And if someone had a missing assignment, you had to toggle between attendance and grade programs to discover whether the child had been absent.
A process that had taken two minutes of teacher-time daily suddenly began to take up to two minutes every hour. Best-case scenario, teachers would lose an extra minute of instructional time each hour: 25 minutes/week, 2 class periods per month, 18 class periods per school year—or 3 full days of instructional time. Taking attendance.
Lest you think I’m being overdramatic (or are dying to tell me that faster computing and better software have eliminated problems and made attendance-taking an absolute joy)—I tell this story not to whine about record-keeping, but to question our automatic goal of “efficiency” and the uses and purposes of data collection.
At a staff meeting, I asked why it was now vitally important to have hour-by-hour data on attendance. The state requires only daily absent/present data, and then only to ferret out kids who weren’t actually attending school, but had been counted for funding purposes. A student who went AWOL would not necessarily be picked up any quicker under the new system, and most of our mid-day leavers were signed out to go to the orthodontist with their mom, anyway.
The new system made data-entry mistakes six times more likely, and kept a secretary busy checking on students who were marked present one hour, but absent the other five due to teacher error. I had great sympathy for “careless” teachers who rushed through the attendance procedure to get started on, you know, teaching—only to be monitored and chastised later. I was one of them. And nobody in the office could explain why or how, precisely, the new system was helping us do a better job of serving kids. The on-line gradebooks and computer-based scheduling also came with attendant, unanticipated problems.
Schools pay attention to what they value. In fact, we were taking attendance six times a day because we could—because our exciting new technology had made it possible. We collected the data first, and decided how to manage it later, a pattern repeatedly endlessly in thousands of schools. We assume that everything can be done faster, cheaper and better through technology; sometimes, the rationale runs backwards—we adopt the technology, and then invent reasons for why we need it.
I have not turned into Dr. Crazy. I admire and respect teachers who integrate elegant uses of technology into instruction, who understand the difference between the teacher and the tool. Bill Ferriter’s concern over being labeled “decidedly average” is a function of #1)—data collection made possible by technology that values numbers over concrete examples or using technology to serve the system, not the teacher—and especially, not the student.