Home > data science, education, feedback loop, modeling, statistics > The business of public education

The business of public education

September 25, 2014

I’ve been writing my book, and I’m on chapter 4 right now, which is tentatively entitled Feedback Loops In Education. I’m studying the enormous changes in primary and secondary education that have occurred since the “data-driven” educational reform movement started with No Child Left Behind in 2001.

Here’s the issue I’m having writing this chapter. Things have really changed in the last 13 years, it’s really incredible how much money and politics – and not education – are involved. In fact I’m finding it difficult to write the chapter without sounding like a wingnut conspiracy theorist. Because that’s how freaking nuts things are right now.

On the one hand you have the people who believe in the promise of educational data. They are often pro-charter schools, anti-tenure, anti-union, pro-testing, and are possibly personally benefitting from collecting data about children and then sold to commercial interests. Privacy laws are things to bypass for these people, and the way they think about it is that they are going to improve education with all this amazing data they’re collecting. Because, you know, it’s big data, so it has to be awesome. They see No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top as business opportunities.

On the other hand you have people who do not believe in the promise of educational data. They believe in public education, and are maybe even teachers themselves. They see no proven benefits of testing, or data collection and privacy issues for students, and they often worry about job security, and public shaming and finger-pointing, and the long term consequences on children and teachers of this circus of profit-seeking “educational” reformers. Not to mention that none of this recent stuff is addressing the very real problems we have.

As it currently stands, I’m pretty much part of the second group. There just aren’t enough data skeptics in the first group to warrant my respect, and there’s way too much money and secrecy around testing and “value-added models.” And the politics of the anti-tenure case are ugly and I say that even though I don’t think teacher union leaders are doing themselves many favors.

But here’s the thing, it’s not like there could never be well-considered educational experiments that use data and have strict privacy measures in place, the results of which are not saved to individual records but are lessons learned for educators, and, it goes without saying, are strictly non-commercial. There is a place for testing, but not as a punitive measure but rather as a way of finding where there are problems and devoting resources to it. The current landscape, however, is so split and so acrimonious, it’s kind of impossible to imagine something reasonable happening.

It’s too bad, this stuff is important.

  1. September 25, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Have you looked into the blogs and especially the recent books by Diane Ravitch, Mercedes Schneider, and others? They seem to trace this whole Biz Biz back even further, to the Nation At Risk broadside at least. (Sorry if you’ve already covered this, as I may have missed earlier posts.)


    • September 25, 2014 at 8:46 am

      My problem with Diane Ravitch is that she gets lots of facts wrong. She’s really more of a politician than a data person.

      On Thu, Sep 25, 2014 at 8:37 AM, mathbabe wrote:



      • September 25, 2014 at 9:12 am

        Yes, all the folks in my circle used to be very critical of the stuff she was putting out in the 90s, but I have to respect her for being able to change a theory when the data defeats it. And I do get the sense she would take into account any corrective information that you can contribute.

        I know you know that not all the people who pretend to be data people really are, especially these days. We have whole armories of think tanks that bombard us with nothing but agenda-driven propaganda, violating every rule I ever learned about real research and how it’s done. You have to expect some loosening up with action research and policy making, but things have gotten ridiculous, and there are self-serving economic and crass political reasons for it.

        Oh well …


  2. mb
    September 25, 2014 at 8:39 am

    wow great ad hominem argument, I can’t think of a single rebuttal.

    “They are often pro-charter schools, anti-tenure, anti-union, pro-testing, and are possibly personally benefitting from collecting data about children and then sold to commercial interests. Privacy laws are things to bypass for these people, and the way they think about it is that they are going to improve education with all this amazing data they’re collecting. ”

    of course, if can not properly re-iterate your opponents views, the quality of your argument will be very poor and you will convince no one but the true believers on your side that were already convinced. So my advice would be, hundreds of books like this already exist, why are you bothering to write another?


    • September 25, 2014 at 8:47 am

      I’m not writing a book about this really. I’m writing a book about evil data models, and the various models (specifically the value-added model for teachers) is a prime example. I can add to the discussion in this way.


      • Ramona H
        September 25, 2014 at 1:39 pm

        Don’t focus on the polarizing groups – you just wrote up cartoon-ish characterizations based on … what exactly? Surveys? Observations? Other blog posts? Gossip?

        I care about using data — and I care a hell of a lot about making our institutions accountable. I don’t run scared of charters, but I don’t see them as the big great hope on the horizon. Our school districts? They just evolved; it wasn’t like any great thought was put into their design — and there is a WHOLE lot of data to indicate they’re doing a lousy job with certain types of kids. And profit? Hmm… seems to me everyone involved in education (except the volunteers and kids) is pulling down a salary and doing OK. So please don’t vilify someone just because they aren’t working for free.
        (If a teacher makes enough to take a nice vacation and maybe invest for her future, is she bad?)

        Here’s what I care about: The ability of educators to meet the needs of kids. The ability of a system not to lose kids who are different. Bias – racial, cultural, language, “normal” range of ability. It pervades our K-12 system and is heartbreaking. Why do we have people who are so adamant about keeping data at bay? Ever talked to a parent of a child with dyslexia who was told, “he’s just not applying himself” … “wait a few years”? Ever spoken to a mom who was told to take her child and leave “we can’t meet her needs here.” (And no, not talking about charters here. Our regular old-fashioned public schools do horrible — and illegal — things to spec needs kids and families all the time… and to kids of different racial, culture and economic backgrounds.)

        The challenge is turning data into information that educators, families and STUDENTS understand, can relate to, and use to support learning. The challenge is getting people to admit, we aren’t evil, but man does our practice need an overhaul.

        Can you imagine the medical and legal fields working without data? Of course not. The challenge is helping people understand how to use information. The challenge is getting a field that rightly responds to relationships see that sometimes you need more than that. Especially since so many struggle to form productive relationships with those who are different.


        • Guest2
          September 26, 2014 at 10:14 am

          “Our school districts? They just evolved; it wasn’t like any great thought was put into their design —”

          I first agreed, in terms of organizational isomorphic responses to the institutional environment (i.e., Lynn Zucker, John W. Meyer, W. R. Scott, Paul DiMaggio and W. W. Powell), but then you look at something like John Taylor Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling,” and you begin to realize just how much social engineering is involved.

          David F. Noble was at Seattle, and his “America By Design” is an eye opener. At least it was for me.


      • Guest2
        September 26, 2014 at 10:33 am

        Our data is only evil because the social structures that we construct *necessarily* distort perceptions, championing certain versions and marginalizing others. The problem emerges because the extent to which social constructs are deemed to be solid and concrete is co-extensive with the extent to which they are taken-for-granted and not to be questioned because they are “real.”

        Berger and Luckmann (1967:123) said it best: “when a particular definition of reality comes to be attached to a concrete power interest, it may be called an ideology.”

        Data that is collected, consequently, is tainted in this way. Moral attribution or assessment is based on the observer’s location in their social networks. So, a lot depends on your point of view, and the point of view of the Data Collectors.


  3. September 25, 2014 at 8:47 am

    One way to avoid being a crackpot in this chapter is to avoid bundling. Not all of these characteristics have to come together as a package:
    – people who believe in the promise of educational data
    – pro-charter schools,
    – anti-tenure,
    – anti-union,
    – pro-testing,
    – personally benefitting from collecting data about children and then sold to commercial interests.

    Similarly, for the other side (of each attribute).

    Since you probably want a punchy chapter, one approach would be to start with the bad attributes, and then show how people in that category are misusing educational data or perverting the promise of educational data.

    I’m curious about how you would advise me in thinking about whether to develop an education-related business. To date, my activities in education have been to support various non-profit organizations. However, two forces pull me into the for-profit direction:
    (1) it is easier to have an impact through a successful business than to influence government policy
    (2) I don’t want to leave this space to businesses that are purely about profit maximization (e.g., with no regard for educational outcomes)

    One large problem I see is that excess returns in education seem to accrue to operators with the “skill” to shift government policy to their interest and/or the ability to exploit consumer biases (since it is so hard for students to assess the value in an educational offering).


    • September 25, 2014 at 10:12 am

      “One way to avoid being a crackpot in this chapter is to avoid bundling. Not all of these characteristics have to come together as a package:
      – people who believe in the promise of educational data
      – pro-charter schools,
      – anti-tenure,
      – anti-union,
      – pro-testing,
      – personally benefitting from collecting data about children and then sold to commercial interests.”

      Actually, the disturbing thing is that, in fact, if you look at the group of people with the power and money to implement these policies, there is a overwhelming overlap in these things.

      Here in Chicago I’m part of a group working on a project to map the various players (people and orgs) involved in education privatization (and adding them to this site: http://littlesis.org/).

      It is highly disturbing how the same people turn up again and again in all these areas. Take a look at (ironically named) The Chicago Public Education Fund, New Schools Chicago, LEAP Innovations. And these are essentially just the local affiliates of nationally-directed efforts (e.g. see http://nextgenlearning.org/)

      A good overview of this worldview can be found in this report about “capital flows to education innovation” with interviews of investors and others in the ed tech industry. One of the authors (and partners in the venture capital firm GSV/ASU) is a Chicago Public Schools Board of Education member: http://gsvadvisors.com/wordpress/wp-content/themes/gsvadvisors/GSV%20Advisors_Fall%20of%20the%20Wall_2012-06-28.pdf


  4. Katie S
    September 25, 2014 at 9:52 am

    I am really excited about this chapter in your book. I am an educational researcher, and I struggle with how people believe big data while it masks so much of the information we need to create effective education. Not to mention (dis-)equity issues and how big data can confirm negative stereotypes. Your post a few weeks ago about “distributional thinking” plucked my strings in this area. I believe we somehow need to manage crossing from the general to the particular (or from the quantitative to the qualitative) differently to visualize “education” in this country.


  5. Gordon
    September 25, 2014 at 10:12 am

    To echo Joshua and mb, saying that people on one side of a debate “often are….” is exactly the kind of mushy analysis that you normally rail against. How “often”? How many people are on each side of this argument? How many people share the characteristics that you’ve assigned to each side? What other characteristics to they have? What else are they? Are there no teachers who believe in the promise of educational data? No proponents of private education who think that testing is bunk? As it stands, all that a reader can tell from your post is that there are some people who share some characteristics on each side of an argument, and you stand on one side of it….

    If someone wrote this post from the other point of view, and formulated it the same way (“On the one hand, you have the people who don’t believe in the promise of education data. These people are often blinkered reactionaries who feel threatened by analysis and don’t stand to gain anything from it….”), you’d tear them to shreds – and rightly so.


    • September 25, 2014 at 10:52 am

      I agree, and that’s why I’m frustrated. I’m glad you guys are commenting, though, it’s helping me think about it.

      I guess the argument I need to make is that, on the technology and data side of the argument, the people who feel qualified to have an opinion are utterly dominated by people who have a financial stake in the outcomes. I need to make that case, of course, but that’s actually pretty easy. There are exceptions, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is super data-positive and they are giving money, not making money. But those guys are concerned with influence, not money.


  6. September 25, 2014 at 10:17 am

    a few misc. points:

    technically, I don’t believe “strict privacy measures” will ever be possible (they will always be flawed and hackable) so would just throw out that idea/hope (and that’s true across the board, be it medicine, business, finance, etc.; just something we have to live with).

    I agree the whole “testing” aspect is the hardest conundrum to crack, and see no ideal solution (it swings back-and-forth between too little or inadequate testing to too much, or heavily-weighted testing).

    Like you I want to see public education made to work, but it is difficult (by the way I went to both private secondary school and private college, and definitely don’t believe I got my money’s worth relative to public education at either).

    Lastly, it might be interesting, if you had the opportunity, to have Keith Devlin weigh in on all this… I really respect his opinion, and he thinks a lot about math education; he’s also one of the most vocal proponents of Common Core, yet I was surprised when he once answered a question from me, by saying in part: “…the only possible answer to the provision of good education in this country is by private enterprise. The state system is a century out of date and broken beyond repair.” That’s pretty harsh, and I don’t want to believe it, but Keith’s an insightful fellow!


  7. September 25, 2014 at 10:31 am

    The What Works Clearinghouse (if you’re not already familiar) and its review process brings a level of built-in skepticism to this whole mess. I can’t personally vouch for it, but a lot of colleagues have mentioned it to me over the years. There could be underlying agendas, though…



  8. September 25, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Applications of data analysis to education need to be tested. I think a big part of the problem is that public schools are a bad place to test them: lots of political baggage, consent and privacy issues, conflicting incentives, difficulty of getting accurate data, lots of variables (making it difficult to isolate the effect of what you’re testing for), huge scope (which makes implementation especially challenging). That’s just to name a few. I’m much happier (in terms of probability of success) when I see people testing data and technology applications in less fraught environments. Let’s test ideas in colleges, private schools, adult courses, and maybe certain well-chosen public schools on a small scale, figure out what works, and roll them out to public schools broadly when we have confidence in them.


  9. Priscilla Bremser
    September 25, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    The K-12 teachers I know understand the distinction between formative and summative assessment. They know you might design items differently depending on how you plan to use the results. They also know that there’s always more to learn about what kids understand, and that what they understand changes every day. The NCLB crowd, not so much. What’s freaking nuts, in my view, is that so much educational policy is based in ignorance. Yes, the profit motive isn’t helping; nor is the fact that some people don’t believe in public education. But the profiteers wouldn’t have gotten this far if legislators and voters had an inkling of the complexities of data science, or what is known and not known about learning, or what things well beyond a teacher’s control can affect learning.


  10. km
    September 25, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    A chapter titled “Feedback Loops in Education” sure sounds interesting! I’ve always been bothered by the enormous delays in the once-per-year state test system.

    While I’m also skeptical about the promise of “big” education data, I think there is value in smaller data – test feedback that is immediate and returned directly to the student or student and teacher. Rapid identification and correction of errors is a feedback loop I can get behind. Some of the places where I see rapid feedback in use are: in-video questions, flashcards or flashcard-like programs, some on-line homework sites. With any of these the quality of the feedback depends a lot on the quality of the questions asked, I’ve seen both good and bad implementations of each type.

    That’s another thing that bothers me about the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests – every time I look at a sample test I come across really poorly written questions.


  11. Min
    September 25, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Just a thought on privatization. Disclosure: I have taught at a private school and tutored at both the primary level and graduate school.

    Yes, private schools can do better than public schools. But not if they cost the same, because then the private schools will pay teachers less than public school teachers get, and the quality of teachers will suffer. It is not as though schools of education ignore the results of educational research during the past century, so that their graduates do not know how to teach. School boards can do crazy things, but so can the heads of private schools. (I do not know enough about parochial schools to comment on them.)


  12. September 25, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    It certainly is hugely important. It is indeed very hard to assess critically the landscape without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. If you need advance proofreading of some kind, I would be happy to help.
    I gave a talk yesterday on the topic, you might find it interesting:


    • Guest2
      September 26, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      Frederick Winslow Taylor (1910) and Henry Ford have a lot to say about this, right?

      See David F. Noble, Digital Diploma Mills; The Automation of Higher Education, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. Some of this is available online.


  13. September 27, 2014 at 11:15 am

    The acronymomaniac in me can’t help observing that “Feedback Loops In Education” spells FLIEs.


  14. September 27, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Want to attract the attention of everyone here to the thoughtful post over here:
    which threads through the same ideas slightly differently


  15. September 29, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    I’m late to the game on this but one point that hasn’t been made: schools are already collecting data— they’re just doing it in a disjointed and ineffective way. Take it from someone who spent 35 years in school administration: you don’t want to look at the a lot of the records (i.e. “data collected”) kept on you during the time you attended!


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