These “open grade books,” by allowing parents to sit at a computer and monitor their child’s performance, helped fuel a cultural shift that reinforced helicopter parenting. I frequently fielded worried or irate phone calls from a parent about a grade before I’d even met with the student’s class to return the paper in question.
Often, my students would receive text messages during class and either solemnly or self-consciously, depending on their sense of humor, reveal that mom or dad was texting to ask why they hadn’t turned in a recent assignment, or when a quiz we’d just taken would be returned. This was troubling for a variety of reasons. First, it deprived the student of the opportunity to take responsibility for his work. But even more problematically, the data provided something akin to an illusion of information, and in the process, stripped teaching of its human component. Maybe the student had been out of class for a field trip and I already knew to expect the work when she returned, or had told me he’d been up all night crying after an argument with his dad and would get me the work before school the next morning. These were not frequently the reason for missed work, but occasionally the story was more complicated than numbers showed.
I sometimes wondered if I’d have more sympathy for this type of behavior once I had children of my own. But now that I am a parent, I feel just as bombarded by the push for data as I did when I was on the other side.
My 3-year-old daughter is sweet, bright and curious. At my first parent-teacher conference, I was somewhat taken aback to see what I immediately recognized as a state standards skills list to rate how well she was performing (essentially below goal, at goal and above goal). I picked this preschool because of its play-based philosophy, and I knew this document wasn’t something her teacher or even the school had chosen. I felt as uncomfortable receiving the information — which essentially distilled a whole child into a checklist — as I had felt about generating it when I was teaching.
I realize the stakes are significantly lower in preschool than in high school, but the limits of data to represent accomplishments and progress, or even to help educate a child, are similar. Like all of us, my daughter is better at some things (painting) than at others (jumping). I want her to get better at the things that are hard for her, but it’s also okay with me that she’s not destined for the state finals in the high jump. Barring a health or safety concern, I’d like to let her struggle through the learning process without having to worry about how well she is performing. It’s fine with me if she paints more pictures and jumps less gracefully while she is doing it, and I want it to be fine with her, too.
Data is extolled as impartial. Teachers are told it can prevent them from unwittingly grading papers based on personal preferences. As a teacher, I was given lists of state standards, and I dutifully matched my grading rubrics to the skills included. Data would make it harder, the explanation went, for parents to claim one section of a course was harder than another, and documenting which skills kids mastered when could be an effective argument against much of the pro-business, anti-teacher rhetoric of the 2010s. Not only should student data inform our teaching, but it could also protect us from accusations of partiality or dereliction.
Here is what my daughter tells me about preschool: that one time she took a toy away from a little boy when no one was looking and she knows that wasn’t nice; that she made a “beautiful drawing”; and that one of the girls in the class has a “lunchbox inside a lunchbox!” (a bento box). I’m glad we have parent-teacher conferences because I want to feel assured that she’s not the one bopping and hitting, or that the one-time toy theft really was just a one-time thing. I don’t need, or even want, a check mark in a column about her beautiful drawing or a spreadsheet of her classmates’ lunch box choices.
As a teacher, I assumed that the demand for more data was coming from parents. I’m not so sure that’s the case. Readily available data now feels like a bad approximation for what I really want from my kids’ schools: I want to know someone is paying attention. I want to know that if there is a problem (which I realize is hard to define, but I personally mean something that’s dangerous either to my child or another), but even then, I don’t necessarily want data on it. And I don’t want constant access to that data. I want to let some struggles fully play out at school for both my daughter’s sake and my own.
It’s not that I don’t sometimes want access to constant information. In the same way I grow impatient waiting for a slow web connection to load, I’ve become accustomed to instant feedback. It seems the expectation of access to data about our children is a result of an era of instant access to all kinds of (reliable or not) information, and I think both are symptomatic of the same problem: A reluctance to engage with uncomfortable, ambiguous, nuanced realities. The onslaught of data will only grow, both because my children will get older and generate more data, and also because the expectation that schools provide this kind of information is quickly becoming universal. But by the end of my daughter’s first year of preschool, it was apparent that the information that was most helpful and enlightening came from nuanced and open conversations with her teachers, not checklists or assessments.
I remember very few grades I gave my students. But I do remember some moments of awe-inspiring kindness, hilarious one-liners, conversations where something complex finally clicked, heated debates, and even heart-to-hearts about the arguments with fathers that made it difficult to complete an assignment on time. The grades I gave my students only ever reflected how well they’d done a certain set of assignments in a somewhat artificial (though I’d say useful and important) environment. The more I play through scenarios of the varied types of students my own children might become — distracted, studious, rebellious, troubled, struggling, obsessive, apathetic, to name a few — the more universally important it seems to reduce the stock I put in the limited picture even the best data can provide.