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]

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.

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.

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.


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.


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):

We The Educators — A new conversation about the future of public education

Education systems around the world are now witness to a variety of educational changes and improvements, numerous social and economic disruptions, and the onset of rapid technological advances that were unimaginable in the past. Within this tsunami of change, innovative teaching and learning practices that employ emerging technologies are sweeping into schools and classrooms with the broader goal of transforming student learning.

While technologies present education systems with both significant opportunities and challenges, some of the most profound developments are related to standardisation, personalisation, privatisation, and the datafication of learning.

To this end, Education International (EI), the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) identified a need to explore the interdisciplinary research underpinning technology-driven datafication and its effects on teaching and learning around the world.

We the Educators - Educational Technology and the Personalisation, Standardisation, Privatisation and Datafication of EducationThis literature review (PDF – 601 KB) attempts to provide a balanced view of the interdisciplinary concepts under investigation in order to inform an analysis of the converging fields of educational technology and datafication. It is part of a larger project, entitled “We the Educators” (, which brings the concepts explored in this research to life through video and animation in multiple languages.

It is hoped that this project will stimulate a rich public dialogue—and greater professional scrutiny—around the relationship between the datafication of education systems and the (de)personalization, privatization and standardization of student learning. We invite colleagues and advocates for quality public education worldwide to draw on this research and to use the videos to continue the conversations.

This project is the result of a global collaborative effort of many talented people including Graham Brown-Martin and teams from EI (Angelo Gavrielatos, Nikola Wachter and Mar Candela), the ATA (Dr Philip McRae, Dr Lindsay Yakimyshyn and Dr J-C Couture) and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (Cassandra Hallett, Bernie Froese-Germain). The collective attention, analysis, support and imagination provided by all of these individuals has brought to life a project with the intention to inform and help to (re)shape the future of teaching and learning.

All of the partners in this project will continue to research and advocate for the conditions of professional practice required to create teaching and learning environments that advance the goal of strong publicly-funded public education systems: to educate all children and youth well.

Please follow, like and connect to these platforms and help us spread this conversation.


When crisis for many means opportunity for some: Private profit and the education of Syrian refugees

By Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary, Education International

The war in Syria has been on the front pages of newspapers for six years now. We have witnessed the plight of those who flee, the long winters in refugee camp tents. But little is said about the fate of refugee children when it comes to their education. Do they have schools to go to? Who teaches them?facebook_Arabic

A new study answers these questions. “Investing in the Crisis: Private Participation in the Education of Syrian Refugees”, conducted by Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia from the University of Massachusetts, examines the situation of 900,000 refugee Syrian children who are out of school in their host countries, with enrolment rates ranging from 70 percent in Jordan to 40 percent in Lebanon and 39 percent in Turkey.

Clearly, there is a deficit in access to education for refugee children – and private providers are actively engaging in that space. Naomi Klein, who coined the term ‘disaster capitalism’, outlined how the private sector is quick to respond whenever a crisis or natural disaster strikes. However, in the case of education in such emergencies, little has been known about the scope and aims of private engagement.

This report highlights a surge in private actor involvement in the Middle East since 2015, with 144 non-state actors currently engaged in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This includes 46 businesses and 15 private foundations, the majority of which have their headquarters in the global north, and 61 percent of which do not have education as their primary mandate.

What other drivers apart from education pull private investment into the region?

In their study, Menashy and Zakharia explore the nature of private sector involvement in the education of Syrian refugees. The study raises questions about the profit motive driving these actors which may be at odds with what is best for refugee children, including their right to quality education. Furthermore, part of the new trend of ‘philanthrocapitalism’, which is increasingly influencing education policies and programmes, is the involvement of private companies in the education of Syrian refugees which may contribute to undermining democratic governance and accountability in education that was once inextricably linked to social dialogue and legislative processes.

While the intervention of private actors may be unavoidable in certain crisis contexts, the study unveils clear areas of concern. Private actors on the ground seem to be insufficiently coordinated, leading to imbalances and duplication of services – a situation which is worsened through inadequate communication between the private actors and the state.

The authors also highlight that private stakeholders often overemphasise the role and presence of technology in education. This emphasis on ICT is questionable given the scarcity of resources, with schools often lacking the most basic infrastructure and tools. Do children need tablets when they have no benches to sit on, no toilets to go to at school? In this regard, governments are well advised to seek and consider the expert voice of teachers and their unions – a vital part of a humanitarian response in education – to ensure that interventions are contextualised and appropriate for the reality in the classroom.

Lastly, the engagement of private actors in Syrian refugee education is translating into political influence, where numerous businesses are becoming key decision-makers in refugee education policymaking. This influence can and will promote an increase in the private provision of education and non-formal education environments. This is deeply problematic due to the overall lack of accountability in terms of educational quality and equity, as previous studies commissioned by Education International have shown.

This report lays bare the undeniable obligation of all governments to ensure that the rights of all children, including refugee children, are met. This includes the provision of free inclusive and equitable quality public education. Beyond this, governments are also required to regulate the involvement of private actors within clear legal frameworks addressing the commercialisation of education in fragile settings. We must challenge the exploitation of those in need. Seeking to profit from those in need cannot be labelled as anything but unethical.