The Use of Data and Algorithms in Education

Whoa! That title is likely a little misleading! This is a reflection on a podcast that I recently listened to that discussed how we use math, data, and algorithms to make decisions that are inequitable and further seclude people in our society. It also relates to a book that I am reading about Building Equity by Dominique Smith, Nancy Frey, Ian Pumpian, and Douglas Fisher from ASCD.

One of my favorite things to do every day is to listen to a variety of audio entertainment. I love podcasts in particular because they provide me with some excellent information and allow me to learn something new, but I rarely turn down a great audio book. Some of my favorite podcasts include Make Me Smart from Marketplace, UpFirst from NPR, Reply All from Gimlet, Planet Money from NPR, and 99 Percent Invisible from Radiotopia. In particular, I was listening to Episode 274 – The Age of the Algorithm, from 99 Percent Invisible. It struck me as something that may or may not have an impact on the equity in our schools.

Weapons of Math Destruction
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. Photo from Amazon page.

In this episode, they discuss the removal of Dr. David Dao, the man that United Airlines removed and bloodied from one of their air planes in April of 2017. An algorithm made the decision that Dr. Dao was a customer that should be removed. The podcast then shifts to discussing the recent book, Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. In that discussion, Roman Mars and Cathy O’Neil discuss how algorithms are used in our society in many different ways, including the criminal justice system and the customer support lines that you call. (Did you know, that your wait times are longer if an algorithm does not view you as a customer of high value?). This discussion got me thinking about how we use data for decision making in education.

One of my first thoughts is to a reading assignment I completed in my Master’s program that discussed “bubble students.” These students were the ones that could make or break a school’s accountability score and the focus of education seems to be on those students the most. Teachers are routinely innodated with data from a variety of sources. Many teachers are asked to generate data on students on a daily basis. The fear of this data collection, at least for me, is that it is going to drive the inequality of our educational system.

My growing concern then becomes that with all of this data collection, we are going to start to see the acceptance, implementation, and reliance on algorithms to make educational decisions based solely on the number. As Cathy O’Neil points out in the interview on the 99 Percent Invisible, many of the algorithms that are being used currently used a secret. How should schools begin to handle the influx of data and algorithms that can make the decisions of a teacher? While this is starting to happen more and more, especially with prescriptive programs for student success. While this is happening, I think that it could be a good thing, but I worry that the algorithms may not be the only answer to the needs of our students and what our students have learned.

I don’t have an answer but it is something that will become a conversation for the future of our students. The most important question is how can we collect the most meaningful data that allows for teachers to quickly and accurately visualize data, interpret, and make decisions, while ensuring that all students have an opportunity and the tools needed to be successful? I think we have our work cut out for us. We have to keep our heads high and ensure that we do this for our students.

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