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Teacher in a Strange Land: Star Tech: The Next Generation of Record-Keeping

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 her assignments—“Are Bar Codes the Mark of the Beast? Discuss.”—which struck me as paranoid in the extreme. Her 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.

However—I have been thinking a lot about the use of technology to gather data and “streamline” normal school processes, like testing, attendance and grading, to present an image of a “21st century school.”  Here is a simple story about data collection and our belief that All Technology is Good.

In 1998, 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, yada yada,

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. If someone had a missing assignment, you had to toggle between attendance and grade programs to discover whether the child had actually been absent.

A process that had taken two minutes of teacher-time daily suddenly began to take two minutes every hour. Best-case scenario, teachers would lose ten extra minutes of instructional time each day: 50 minutes/week, four class periods per month, 36 class periods per school year, or six 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 all K-12 tech-enhanced data collection.

The state requires daily absent/present data, and that to ferret out kids who aren’t actually attending school but were 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.

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 also came with unanticipated problems—teachers who didn’t post enough grades (remember when formative data included things that weren’t numbers?), the amount of time now required to deal with anxious parents, and so on.

The most obvious reason to question always-available online gradebooks is that responsibility for turning in work and monitoring a running performance record should belong to students, especially in secondary settings. We have always had periodic reporting to parents—four or six times a year, or in some cases, weekly progress reports. Any more than that elevates grades over actual learning and encourages students to let mom be in charge of their education.

Tech-based surveillance of students is now on steroids. In a thoughtful post entitled How Much Should I Track My Kid? Ann Helen Peterson says this:

My parents trusted me because I had earned their trust. Sometimes I stretched that trust, but I was constantly figuring out what felt too risky, what felt right or wrong, who I didn’t want to get in a car with. Maybe that sounds like a lot of discernment for a teen. But how else do we figure out who we are? My parents could’ve lectured me about “making good decisions” all they wanted; I only knew how to make them by finding myself in situations far from them where I had to.

The same principle applied to my grades, to my online use, to how I talked to boys and figured out friendships. In high school, I would see my exact grade around twice during the quarter, when a teacher would distribute printouts that included all graded assignments and your current percentage.

Schools pay attention to what they value. We collect data first, and decide how to manage it later, a pattern repeatedly endlessly in thousands of schoolsWe 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.

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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...