Saturday, February 6, 2010

Data Collecting at the Grocery Store and at School

I went grocery shopping recently and paused for a moment at the checkout when I swiped my King Soopers card that entitles me to some discounts in exchange for sharing information about my buying habits. I wondered what my card might say about me to someone who doesn't know me. Clearly it can show that I prefer to buy organic and local, and I don't buy a lot of junk food. I am sure it helps them to know that a person like me, who will buy organic blueberries will likely also buy a certain kind of cereal or a certain kind of soap and they will find a way to entice me to buy it. If it encourages the grocer to provide more of what I want, and I have access to more choices that I like, I am fine with this exchange.

I wonder what it is not able to understand though. Does it show that I went shopping while I was hungry or if I was in a hurry? Does it know that I shopped with little helpers who made requests at every aisle? Can it tell that I am a list maker and that I plan out the recipes I will be using for the week? Can it tell what mood I was in or how am feeling about my weight or health? How does it explain my occasional absences, when I go somewhere else that is further away and more expensive because their are healthier choices or when I frequent farm stands in the summer? I am sure it makes plenty of educated guess about who I am, what I need, and what I will choose based on the information that I have given them and from others who shop like I do. I believe that it is limited in what it can know about me.

It made me think of the way we handle public schools. In exchange for a free or very inexpensive education, we give information about our students. Like my King Soopers Card, the information is quite limited, and is nominally beneficial for each student. If I choose not to share the information via my grocery card, I still get what I want but I pay more for it. In education, if you allow the constant testing in the form of quizzes, tests, State assessments, etc. you can get a free education. If you choose not to be tested, you must pay more for your education...elsewhere. Even if you were allowed to opt out of all testing, the curriculum and lesson plans are designed around the testing system anyway, resulting in an often inferior education.

Sometimes the tests really are used to assess the level of understanding of each student, allowing the teacher to make necessary changes to the lessons and spend more time on areas identified as deficits before moving on. Sometimes the tests are used as an institutional report card, showing how the teacher is doing, how the principal is doing, and if the school should be closed down. Just like the grocery card, the test scores leave more out than they reveal. They do no tell of a teacher's rapport with each student and how engaged they are in the learning. They do not explain what circumstances a student comes from that day or that year, like poverty or abuse. Because of the test-driven nature of the curriculum, it doesn't even show the talent of the teacher, because they are not allowed to use their talents in that environment. The tests don't even differentiate between a willing and an able student. Just as not all students are able to read in First Grade, or understand trigonometry, not all students are willing to learn in that environment and they protest through disengagement. A disengaged student is not going to be the high scorer.

What are the options for the student who is unwilling to constantly be tapped for statistics? Private school and homeschool if those are financially possible. Dropping out is another costly option. That person's earning potential is likely to be rather low and that increases the chances that he or she will rely on other government assistance, in the form of welfare or medicare for example. If we have to pay anyway, why not pay less, early on with a quality, engaging education that is designed to bring out the strengths and curiosity in every student?

The exchange at my grocery store seems far more beneficial for both parties than in public schools. If I elect not to participate in this exchange at the store, it is easy for me to do so, and my extra spending is often fairly negligible. This is in sharp contrast to the scenario for a student. The choice is difficult and the cost is huge. If testing were truly for the benefit of the students and education was more choice driven, the system would be in a lot better shape. We could learn something by examining the choices we make in daily life. If we wouldn't accept an unbalanced, unfair exchange, we ought to ensure the same standards for our children.


  1. Nice blog post. I enjoy metaphors like this that show what we do in education makes little to no sense.

    I teach middle school in Canada. Check out my education blog at:

    thanks for sharing.


  2. Tracy - what a fantastic post! My boys go to the a Waldorf school because of this exact issue. My dream is for my boys to become thinkers not test-takers. I was a great test-taker but never really understood the material I was being tested on and really cared to understand it. My 6 year old can analyze and evaluate a situation in a mind-boggling way and I truly believe the teaching methods he is being exposed to help him with that. He is not under the stress of daily tests and pop quizzes which only lead to anxiety and stress never simulating the real world.

  3. Thanks, Joe for reading my blog (I read yours this morning and love it!). I would love to learn more about what Canada is doing to improve education in real ways and will continue to follow your blog.

    Mary, thanks for your comment. I think that is why Waldorf school is so fantastic but that kind of education should be made available for all students! Like Joe, I don't think I will rest until it is!