How much is enough? How can we use data responsibly in a school? Teachers and administrators are pouring data into spreadsheets. When can we stop?
Too often, these questions are lightly addressed, if they are addressed at all. Years ago, I worked as a bonds analyst in the home office of an insurance company. The CEO emphasized his own productivity program, the central idea being that employees needed to move on when the bulk of a task was accomplished. Don’t dot the i’s. Don’t cross the t’s. Get out before you get into diminishing returns and bog down in the minutiae. His concern was the opportunity cost created by all those small details.
Many educational administrators need to learn about opportunity costs. What is the spreadsheet for? Do you need six tests? In the process of learning your students’ operational grade level in mathematics, what other useful information can you glean at the same time?
Sometimes making the list of goals with the big picture in mind can help. Asking the right questions helps. Do we need a comprehensive breakdown of the names and numbers of students who can convert fractions to percentages? How can we minimize instructional time lost? How will we use the data we are generating? Do we have the time to take advantage of the data we are creating? How much will the full day of work required to create these new spreadsheets antagonize teachers — especially if that work does not appear to result in any practical changes?
Data-gathering and data manipulation should always take into account the amount of time required to fulfill data goals. Our data-gathering efforts tend to come directly and indirectly out of instructional time. With that in mind, administrators need to figure out exactly what answers they require and how to minimize the time and effort necessary to get those answers. Too often, these issues receive scant attention, as an email is sent out telling teachers to give yet another test and assess the results of that test, putting those answers in a communal spreadsheet that may or may not provide sufficient benefit for the time-cost involved. Passing the data buck onto teachers compromises students’ educations when time and opportunity costs are not considered.
Businesses always consider opportunity costs when making important decisions. The executives at the car company know that when they build Car A, they are committing resources that could be used to build Car B instead. They build Car A because market research suggests that particular car will be the most profitable choice, given the constraints posed by available resources.
The opportunity cost incurred by data-gathering in a school district most frequently will be loss of instructional time or preparation. That cost should never be minimized or ignored.