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Take a Number, Stand in Line, Better Yet, Be a Number Get Tracked: The Assault of Longitudinal Data Systems on Teaching and Learning

by Jeanne Marie Iorio & Susan Matoba Adler - March 08, 2013

Statewide longitudinal databases are becoming sources for decision-making by policymakers, administrators, and teachers. These databases are tracking children and teachers, reducing the performance of children and the work of teachers to numbers. We call for an end to the obsession with the quantitative and hope for a rethinking of assessment and teaching practices that trust children and teachers as capable and critical to learning, teaching, and assessment.

In the United States, longitudinal databases are becoming the driving force for making educational decisions. States are creating these databases to track both children and teachers in order to receive monies tied to Race to the Top and to gather quantitative information to make “better” decisions in teaching, policy making, and administration.  The Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) grant program, allows states to apply to receive monies to create, implement, and expand databases encompassing K-12 and, in some states, P-20W which includes preschool through workforce. Currently 47 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands all have at least one SLDS grant in the past four rounds of funding.

Washington-based advocacy organization, Data Quality Campaign (DQC) (http://www.dataqualitycampaign.org) has positioned itself to support policymakers to develop and use statewide longitudinal databases.  The reasoning for advocacy is to help states increase efficiency, system performance, transparency, and student achievement. Just by reading this laundry list, one might bow in awe of the database while others might cringe. Cringe – how could a database with such good intention cause such a cringe effect?

Cringing may be a gut response to some of the “essential elements” of the DQC’s longitudinal data system. To begin with, every child within the state is given a unique code that will be part of the child’s record from preschool through 12th grade, following the child from school to school within a state. In a perfect world of data compliance (according the DQC), the code will even follow the child from state to state, ensuring surveillance of children, as their every test score, achievement and failure can be documented in the data system (as long as its quantitative).

On top of the unique child identifier, teachers will also be lucky enough to receive their own unique code linking child and teacher. DQC offers this element as the means to judge the teachers’ training in conjunction to student achievement. (It should be noted that DQC refers to this as “training” and not education, implying the deskilling of teachers rather than the empowerment of teachers as transformative thinkers.) DQC shares that through the data system low test scores can be explained by viewing the teachers’ training on the subject matter.

In collaboration with DQC, the Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC) supports policymakers in establishing databases that address early childhood. Reasoning for the data system includes building program and workforce quality, access to high-quality early childhood programs, and information to inform practice. The ECDE website (http://www.ecedata.org/) states, “Higher education institutions, state legislators and other leaders will have information on the supply and demand for ECE staff members….” reducing early childhood professionals as commodities through the supply and demand lens. ECDC continues to describe how the data system can contribute to the retention and development of “an ECE workforce that can help parents prepare every young child for success in school and life.” This statement positions the customer in education as the parent and silences the child as any feasible source of data beyond demographics and test scores. Children are used to fulfill the political and economic agenda for adults – they become pawns in the process of building a longitudinal data system, rather then being actors in their own education. The objective to track children’s achievements to help children move forward on their own trajectory of development and learning becomes an opportunity to manipulate the success of many children for competitive gains of institutions both private and public.

The current envisioning and implementation of statewide longitudinal data systems is determining the image of both the child and the teacher. Reduced to unique identifiers, children and teachers are positioned as people with no voice and no valid contribution to how education might be imposed upon each of them. For example, when children are described through demographics and quantitative performance the only mission accomplished is a surface, if anything, description of the child. Further, the teacher is explained through her teacher education program, her professional development experiences, and the performance of her students on a quantitative test. It sounds like a simplistic picture of both child and teacher. How can we reduce the complexity of the child and teacher to numbers? Why are we ignoring the richness of relationships between teacher and student to quantify performance of children and credentials of teachers? How can policy and administrative decisions be based on this small and limited quantitative facet of the people a school system serves? Have the ease of numbers and belief that quantitative work is not biased become an easy way to forgo thoughtful decision-making? A longitudinal data system cannot accurately document the qualitative nature of teaching and learning.

DQC offers data to define the work of the teacher. For example, with data teachers can check on children’s progress with a click of a mouse, accessing web-based information. Further, the information is a source to group children based on children’s weaknesses and strengths. Teachers can gather together to strategize how to compartmentalize instruction in the name of effective teaching. The data has become the proverbial campfire where all teachers gather in order to make judgments on their students, plan their curriculum, and discuss how to teach. Essentially, data helps teachers to implement tracking, prescribed curriculum, and teaching to the test without ever having to develop a relationship with the children, engage in deep thinking, or debate the limitations of standardization. Standardization becomes the norm so limitations are irrelevant and ignored.

Interestingly, in some states, early learning programs are being proposed where the longitudinal data systems are central to the framework. This is being translated to readiness-based programs complete with standards and testing in order to be able to input into the database. Any suggestion of qualitative documentation of children is referred to as an augmentation to the quantitative numbers or if the qualitative information is to be used in the database, it would have to be translated into quantitative numbers. Further, some states have monies to establish the longitudinal data system and are now actively searching for funds to sustain the system. Suggested means of sustaining the data system are through federal grants (see DQC), ensuring states’ dependence on the federal government. How can states begin to build sustainable schools tied to the communities when school systems are shackled to federal monies? When does the value of place and sustainable communities override the greed for a piece of the promising pie?

Sweden’s Curriculum for Preschool (2011), a mere 16-pages, addresses goals, guidelines, norms, values, role of child, teacher, home, and community, and evaluation, and positions democracy as the foundation of preschool. Learning is described as “open” and “should contribute to children developing an understanding of themselves and the outside world.” In one section of the document, “Influence of the Child,” a recognition of how the child is capable to think, take responsibility, and contribute to both planning and creating the environment is described through the teachers and work team. This implies that the teacher cannot exist without the child. This is very different than a longitudinal data system that thrives without any voluntary input from the child and ignores the collaborative nature of education.

This fetish with quantitative data must stop. Numbers and statistics are defining children and teachers. Using qualitative data allows us to examine how meaning is constructed and how learning is enacted. That should be the purpose of data gathering. How can we rethink current assessment and teaching practices so children are described through their thoughts, ideas, questions, and actions? How can we rethink current assessment and teaching practices so teachers are described through how they listen and respond to children? How can education inspire children to develop relationships with people and communities that are part of their lives? Discussing these questions is one step towards creating schools that view and trust children and teachers as capable and critical to learning, teaching, and assessment.


Skolverket (2011). Curriculum for preschool Lpfö 98. Stockholm: Edita.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 08, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17051, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:09:46 AM

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