Big data in education: Servant or master?

by Bernie Froese-Germain

The We The Educators (WTE) project, a partnership of Education International, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), was launched in May 2017 at Education International’s ‘Unite for Quality Education and Leadership’ Conference in Rotterdam.  The Canadian launch of WTE took place at CTF’s Canadian Forum on Public Education held in Ottawa in July.

In the broad context of global education reform, as the literature review states, WTE “examines the handshake between educational technology and the datafication of learning, and how these forces can influence the depersonalisation of learning and the deprofessionalisation of teaching.”

The literature review also acknowledges that

Educational technology and the associated production of data hold great potential in terms of supporting individual learner needs.  But the relationship between educational technology, data, personalisation, privatisation and standardisation needs to be considered with care; the potential for harm must not be overshadowed by the hype, and the broader purpose of education must not be lost. [emphasis added]
https://wetheeducators.com/

Writing in the Summer issue of the ATA Magazine (on the theme of “Assessment in the Era of Big Data”), Sam Sellar observes that, “Datafication is one of the most significant developments in schools around the world today.  Data in various forms – from attendance and behaviour records to grades and standardized test results – now shape the work of policymakers, administrators and teachers in the classroom.”  Sellar uses the metaphor of nested dolls to explain how data are being used in schools:

We can think about schools as sitting within a series of increasingly larger units that shape their work.  A school is like the smallest matryoshka doll in a set.  In Canada, for example, a school sits within a school board, which sits within a provincial education system and, in turn, a national approach to education.  The largest doll is the global space in which we now think about education.  For example, international organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) increasingly shape the work of schools through tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Data flow between each of these different nested scales and it is important to understand how this occurs and how it affects public education.
https://www.teachers.ab.ca/Publications/ATA%20Magazine/Volume-97-2016-17/Number-4/Pages/Navigating-the-Flow-of-Datafication.aspx

Pasi Sahlberg in another article reminds us that “big data is a good servant but a bad master.”  He outlines a number of reasons for this:

  1. A fundamental purpose of big data is to have enough information and process it fast enough to predict what is likely to happen next.  This is called predictive analytics and is the great promise of big data.  This may be worthwhile in meteorology or a corporation’s strategic planning, but it certainly may lead to odd situations in health care or education if not handled sensibly.
  2. When masses of data are collected in school by sensors, such as motion detectors, cameras and microphones capturing every child’s facial expression, social interaction and gestures every day, all year round, decisions made by smart machines may lead to unethical experimentation on students or even Orwellian surveillance of individuals’ privacy.
  3. Big data is also emerging through digital testing platforms and adaptive learning analytics systems (digital tutors); as masses of student testing data grow, so does the desire to harvest it for patterns.
  4. Big data normally reveals only correlation between events, not causation.  Correlation is important in understanding these relationships, but it doesn’t mean that one thing would cause the other.

Sahlberg proposes that we place a greater focus on what he calls “small data” which “emerges from the notion that in a world that is increasingly governed by binary digits and cold statistics, we need information that helps us to understand better those aspects of teaching and learning that are invisible or not easily measurable.”  At its core, small data speaks to the relational nature of teaching and learning, and how these important relationships can provide teachers with the knowledge they need to help their students to learn:

Teachers know the importance of human observations, face-to-face conversations and critical reflections in making sense of what goes on in classrooms.  Standardized tests or opinion surveys may help to identify some general trends, but they are not able to reveal deeper secrets of pedagogy.  Therefore, small data can be a good tool to find out what works best and why in schools.
https://www.teachers.ab.ca/Publications/ATA%20Magazine/Volume-97-2016-17/Number-4/Pages/Small-Data-for-Big-Change.aspx

The essence of the “small data” idea is captured succinctly in this quote by Alberta teacher and blogger, Joe Bower (who passed away in 2016), highlighted in the We The Educators videos: “Want to collect data on how children are learning?  Know them.  Watch them.  Listen to them.  Talk with them.  Sit with them.  Be with them.”

Bernie Froese-Germain is a Researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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Now, more than ever, the need to protect public education in the era of Trump

By Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
Keynote remarks at the CTF Canadian Forum on Public Education,  July 10, 2017 in Ottawa.

Values, democracy

Like many of you, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since our election. Donald Trump ran as a populist but governs for the elite and the wealthy. He exploited the deep distrust and anxiety in America, people’s frustration with an economy and political system rigged against them. He hijacked the rhetoric of our movement to get elected. He promised jobs to out-of-work factory workers and coal miners. He promised an end to Obamacare and a much better replacement. He hasn’t delivered. Indeed, his actions to date have been to take things away from people—the push to strip people of health care, of voting rights, labor rights, reproductive rights, travel rights, among other things. And in the process, he has disrespected the dignity of the office of the president.

As polarized as our country now seems, when you really listen to people throughout America,  you still hear similar hopes and aspirations, regardless of geography or demography or politics.

I’ve traveled a great deal since the November election, visited hundreds of schools and talked with educators, parents, community leaders and others in big cities and in small rural towns; to Democrats as well as folks who voted for Trump. This is what I hear:

  • People want good jobs that pay a living wage and a voice at work.
  • They want a secure retirement with dignity.
  • They want affordable, accessible healthcare coverage so they’re not one illness away from bankruptcy.
  • And they want public schools that are safe, welcoming, and give kids a ladder of opportunity. And people want affordable higher education that doesn’t leave them with a mountain of debt.

What we know is that none of this happens without a strong and vibrant democracy that’s inclusive, respects the will of the people, and protects the civil rights of all.

So in some ways, the biggest challenge in America, and frankly around the world, is the dangerous attacks on pluralism and freedom. In the U.S., it looks like blatant voter suppression, gerrymandering of districts to hurt minorities and Democrats; attacks on the media and the judiciary, and blaming immigrants, Muslims, even transgender students, for all the problems of a world in transition.

I have been carrying a book that a Yale history professor, Dr.  Tim Snyder, has written, called “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century.” It essentially instructs us that history, while it doesn’t repeat, can instruct and can warn…  and if we are going to take on the fight for these values… who better than do that than the world‘s educators.

Labor unions and public education

The AFT and the CTF represent two institutions vital to opportunity and democracy: labor unions and public education. That is why we are in the crosshairs, maybe right now more in the United States than Canada. But I know education privatization is creeping across the border in at least three Canadian provinces.

Public education and labor unions are the gateways to the middle class. They are the foundations of a just society and a vibrant democracy. And they provide paths to counter the lack of economic security and opportunity that is tearing at the fabric of our society.

(From left to right: CTF President H. Mark Ramsankar, CTF VP Francine Leblanc-Lebel, former CTF President Heather Smith, CTF VP James Dinn, AFT President Randi Weingarten and former CTF VP Shelley Morse.)

Trump-DeVos agenda

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are committed to two things: They treat education as a commodity, not as a public good. And they promote and incentivize privatizing schools while defunding, destabilizing and ultimately destroying public education by slashing education dollars and diverting them elsewhere, including for private school tuition.

DeVos couches her education vision with the argument that every parent deserves the right to send their child to a school of their choice. Sounds good, right? But what she doesn’t say is that she wants to make it impossible for public schools to be a viable option. She wants to drain money from public schools and hand it over to privatizers.

Her cruel, callous, catastrophic education budget would zero out more than $9 billion in funding for programs that help lift up low-income public school students. And we have real evidence that these programs have been very effective – like after-school enrichment programs, community schools with wraparound services, smaller class sizes and college tuition assistance. Yet, she wants to use $20 billion over the next several years for private school vouchers and other privatization.

She is using the Swedish playbook, to our children’s detriment. Sweden’s students were once among the world’s top-performers. Then Sweden moved to a privatization model, student outcomes plummeted, and Sweden’s ranking plunged. If a strategy isn’t moving the needle anywhere in the world, why in the world would we use it?

And it’s not just in Sweden. In the United States, we have seen similar results with unaccountable privatization:

  • Voucher programs in Louisiana, Indiana and Washington D.C. have had negligible or negative effects on their students. There has been no credible study in the 30 years of vouchers in the United States that concludes those students do better than their public school peers.
  • And the for-profit charter schools that DeVos pushed in Michigan had poor student outcomes along with gross mismanagement and corruption. In 2003, Michigan ranked 28th in fourth-grade reading. By 2015, the state was ranked 41st. In fourth-grade math, the state went from 27th to 42nd.

Visits to Canadian, Van Wert schools

There are great public schools in Canada and the United States. I have visited some in Ottawa that I would rank among the world’s best. We also have lots of excellent public schools in the U.S. that are using “what works” to be schools where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach and where there’s joy in learning and kids get engaging instruction. And we have taken delegations to see great schools.

In fact, I took DeVos to a great school system in a rural, small city in Ohio that went overwhelmingly for Trump in November. Van Wert, Ohio, public schools have a robust early childhood program, a nationally recognized robotics team and a community school that helps at-risk students graduate. And it’s clear that teachers and school leaders collaborate and respect each other. But just weeks after that visit, she submitted her budget proposal that would cut federal funding for these programs. It’s truly incomprehensible.

We need to lift up public schools that work and the programs that make them work.

But what happens when they are not working for kids?  What happens when we continue to under-resource schools? 23 states still spend less on K-12 education than before the Great Recession.

If schools aren’t safe enough or are otherwise struggling, the solution isn’t to throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not to dismantle public education in favor of an ideology and an agenda that have no evidence of working.

It’s to do what I call the four pillars—the strategies that will help create and maintain successful schools: focusing on children’s well-being, powerful learning, teacher capacity and collaboration.

Children’s well being

Education starts with meeting children where they are—emotionally, socially, physically and academically. Every child needs to feel safe and valued. We also need to confront poverty because we know that poverty’s consequences seriously affect how kids do in school. One way is with community schools, which are neighborhood schools that meet students’ needs by coordinating with partners for resources. These include in-school health and dental clinics, social workers, guidance counselors, food pantries, parent resource centers. And at these schools, we’ve seen large gains in student attendance, parental involvement and academic progress.

Powerful learning

The path to accomplishing the goals of developing students academically, for work and civic life lies on powerful learning—learning that engages students; encourages them to investigate, strategize and work in teams. Testing and test prep won’t get them there. An example is what we saw in Van Wert, Ohio, a rigorous project-based approach that starts in elementary school and goes through high school. Career and technical education can also deeply engage students and develop skills and knowledge that they will use in the world of work.

Building teacher capacity

We’ve seen for too long and in far too many schools the routine of basically throwing the keys to a teacher and telling them to ‘just do it and do it well.’ No one would accept that if it involved pilots or soldiers. But teachers? Becoming an accomplished teacher takes time, support and an intentional focus – like teacher residency programs that pair a prospective teacher with accomplished educators … and opportunities for new and veteran teachers to share experiences with colleagues. Also, teacher evaluations should be about teacher development to support teacher growth and student learning. Teacher evaluations shouldn’t be solely based on test scores and used as a hammer to sanction and punish teachers.

Fostering school and community collaboration

The glue that holds all of this together is educators, parents and community partners working together. What doesn’t work for a struggling school is taking the “disruption” approach—mass firings, school closures, and district or state takeovers. What is effective is working together and bringing in the programs and services that will lift up our schools, not tear them down. Like speech therapy, Socratic seminars, science fairs, chess clubs, mentors for students.

We are in the fight of our lives. On the one hand, we have as our education secretary the most ideological, anti-public education person to ever hold the title. She is someone who has never seen a privatization program she disliked or a public school she liked. On the other side, there are those of us who believe that every child has a right to dream their dreams and achieve them. That only happens with a system of public education.

Conclusion

And even though most days it feels like an uphill battle, there is a real appetite in the United States to fight back, and we are doing just that.

At the end of the day, parents want to feel confident in their public schools, know that they have a safe and welcoming environment where kids find joy in learning. They want education to enable opportunity and they want their public schools to live up to their potential as the great equalizers in our society.

In the United States, now is not the time to lower our defenses or sit on the sidelines. With an increasingly erratic president and members of his party who refuse to act as a check and balance, we have to hold them accountable and empower people to take action to preserve, protect, strengthen and improve public education.

There’s no sugar coating it—Americans are facing an existential threat to our rights and our public education system. There is a path forward focused on resistance and persistence around the values and aspirations that bind all of us.

In the end, it’s a question of what kind of country we want. Should we settle for some children getting the education they need and deserve, but not all? Do we want a country where income determines whether people will have access to the healthcare they need, or the higher education they want, or a retirement with dignity?

We, the people, have to be the check and balance on the threats to our democracy. It is we, the people, who must reclaim the promise of public education. This work can’t be outsourced. It takes all of us.

Canada: Coalface of education privatisation outlined at international seminar

Text by: Education International

The growing privatisation of public education in Canada – and globally – is of increasing concern to experts at an international seminar in Ottawa.

The privatisation and commercialisation in and of public education, both nationally and internationally, was the focus of the first day of the Canadian Forum on Public Education, hosted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) on 10-11 July in Ottawa, Canada. The event was attended by 100 teacher leaders from across Canada.

CTF President Heather Smith outlined the Canadian perspective while David Edwards, Deputy General Secretary of Education International, highlighted the importance of galvanising teacher unions’ efforts to counter the corporate quest for profits in the education sector.

EI’s Global Response Project Director, Angelo Gavrielatos, described how edu-businesses, including Pearson, use standardised tests as a point of entry to the education sector.

Continue Reading (Education International): https://www.ei-ie.org/en/detail/15230/canada-coalface-of-education-privatisation-outlined-at-international-seminar

Canada @ 150 – Eight big ideas to strengthen public education

By Bernie Froese-Germain

The genesis of public education in Canada and the birth of the Canadian federation have some important commonalities. They are both approximately the same age – public education has its origins in the latter half of the 19th century. More importantly, they are both works in progress, continually evolving to meet new needs and demands, one supporting and strengthening the other.

On the role that public education plays in a democratic society, philosopher and essayist John Ralston Saul eloquently stated that:

Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilized democracy.
www.publiceducationnetworksociety.com/the-charter.html

In a similar vein, American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey observed a century ago that:

It is no accident that all democracies have put a high estimate upon education; that schooling has been their first care and enduring charge. Only through education can equality of opportunity be anything more than a phrase. Accidental inequalities of birth, wealth, and learning are always tending to restrict the opportunities of some as compared with those of others. Only free and continued education can counteract those forces which are always at work to restore, in however changed a form, feudal oligarchy. Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.
https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Dewey

The historic milestone of Canada’s 150th anniversary is an appropriate time to reflect on the future of public education: what kind of public education system do we need to support the vision of an inclusive, equitable, sustainable, prosperous Canada?

No one could argue that public education doesn’t play a central role in creating our future society – unfortunately, the typical discourse around educational innovation and change too often equates with standardized, market-driven reforms which undermine equity. Teachers’ organizations attempt to provide an important counter-narrative to this flawed mindset.

So, with that in mind, here are some “big” ideas (in no particular order) to strengthen public education in Canada.

  1. Education for reconciliation – In the wake of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and its Calls to Action, CTF firmly believes education is vitally important to the healing and reconciliation process and is committed to working together with Indigenous organizations and our other educational partners toward this end.
  2. The teacher voice – Classroom teachers, the experts on teaching and learning, are best positioned to know what students require to be successful in the broadest sense of the term. As such, it is vitally important to involve and incorporate the teaching profession’s views on educational change. Indeed, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber, editors of Flip the System: Changing Education From the Ground Up, published last year by Education International (EI), argue that teachers can and should take the lead on education reform. https://www.teachers.ab.ca/Publications/ATA%20Magazine/Volume-96-2015-16/Number-1/Pages/Book-review.aspx
  3. Support for collaborative professionalism – The importance of fostering a system culture of collaborative professionalism to improve teaching and learning is one of the main recommendations of a recent study on the state of professional learning in Canada. According to Andy Hargreaves, “professional learning and development (PLD) is most effective when it takes place within a culture of collaborative professionalism where teachers work and plan together, take shared responsibility for all students’ learning in each other’s classes and schools, and undertake inquiry in teams to solve problems in their schools”.
    https://learningforward.org/who-we-are/announcements/press-releases/2016/12/05/findings-from-a-study-of-educators-professional-learning-in-canada-released-today
  4. Social and economic conditions matter – Socio-economic factors (such as child poverty and mental illness) can have an impact on student learning and educational outcomes. Improving the broader social and economic conditions of children and their families will ultimately benefit learning and the overall quality of public education.
  5. Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) – We need to deepen our awareness and understanding of global education reform and how these changes are impacting our schools and education systems. Features of GERM include school choice (charter schools, voucher programs, etc.), increased competition between schools, test-based accountability, and the narrowing of curriculum. To take one example, the growth of international benchmark testing such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) PISA is influencing educational policy and practice in ways that can be detrimental to the goals of public education.
  6. Achieving excellence through equity – The Alberta Teachers’ Association’s (ATA’s) blueprint for educational development in Alberta, A Great School for All (PDF – 1.3 MB), takes a systematic holistic approach to educational change with equity as its foundation. The blueprint contains 12 dimensions of change which “are interconnected and recognize that schools are complex living communities that exist within an ecology bounded by culture, community, socio-economic realities, political environments and global trends and pressures.”
  7. Increase support for diversity – Given the incredible diversity of classrooms and schools – and the richness and strength that lies therein – providing the necessary supports and services for students with special needs including students with mental health problems is absolutely critical.
  8. Stem the growing tide of privatization in/of public education – Over the past two years, CTF has been actively involved in the Global Response campaign, an international effort – coordinated by EI and endorsed at the EI World Congress in Ottawa in 2015 – opposed to the privatization and commercialization of public education. The campaign has two complementary pillars:
    • Advocate for governments to do what they’re supposed to do – act in the interest of the public good with adequate funding, resources and policy to ensure quality inclusive public education.
    • Endeavour to interrupt and stop “edu-businesses” such as Pearson and Bridge International Academies from profiting at the expense of access for all to free quality publicly funded public education.

    As part of the Global Response campaign, the recently launched We The Educators initiative, a series of animated short videos supported by a detailed literature review, is intended to catalyze new conversations about the relationship between educational technology and the privatization, standardization, datafication, and (de)personalization of education.

While not exhaustive by any means, this list does touch on some core issues for the teaching profession in its efforts to ensure the provision of quality public education for all – for the next 150 years and beyond.

*This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of PerspectivesCTF’s Web magazine.