Friday, April 13, 2012

Math Awareness Month - Mathematics, Statistics, and the Data Deluge

The American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics has announced that the theme for Mathematics Awareness Month, April 2012, is Mathematics, Statistics, and the Data Deluge.

In the world of education reform, few concepts have received more attention than data, or rather the acquisition of data.  Data and credibility are often seen as one and the same.  Some people believe data can replace verbs and adjectives to describe complex activities such as what makes up good teaching.  New data is used to create statistics, and for some purposes, statistical analysis is officially usurping judgment as the basis for decision making.

This pursuit of data and the interpretation of the statistics that result has fundamentally changed our education system.  The mass of data school districts are required to report to governing authorities has changed the job description of school administrators.  The need to collect and process this data has changed the nature of the work being done at BOCES.  The difficulty of creating a statewide computer system to process the data has plagued the State Education Department, which is investing new millions after old millions to try to get a system that can handle this ever growing mass of data.  Meanwhile at the district level Assistant Superintendents for Instruction are spending hundreds of hours learning how to evaluate their staff in a manner that supports the conversion to data.  These changes are driven by the demands of collecting data, not by what we learn from the analysis.

When new ways to create data are put into law or regulation without establishing the validity of that same data, major political problems result.  Case in point, witness the conflict over our state’s new teacher and principal evaluation system’s use of data to measure performance.  For educators who have lived through successive redesigns of assessment systems to measure teaching and learning, only to see each rejected by next set of leaders, the most recent assertion that everyone should accept and trust information gleaned from the new data is not sufficient to instill confidence. 

We are witnessing a growing urgency about measuring things that were not measured numerically in the past.  Albert Einstein had a favorite quote, "Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted, counts.”  

The theme of Math Awareness Month merits thoughtful reflection.  The data deluge the math organizations are concerned about is real. Most people don’t have the time or sophistication to determine if a statistic is revealing truth or obfuscating it.  Accumulating data should not become an end in itself and collecting data should not be allowed to disrupt the real work of education.  

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