As a recurrent topic du jour in education, Big Data drives big passions. On the one side are Big Data boosters, who view it as education’s inevitable future. On the other are skeptics. These include, among others, Larry Cuban, and Gerald Conti, the 27-year teaching veteran whose recent resignation letter ignited a viral storm around the role of data in limiting teachers’ ability to do their jobs well.

These skeptics are a well-spoken bunch, with a lot a valuable criticism to offer. But there’s an odd disconnect in their either-or argument about education data. At one point in a recent cautionary post about education data’s seductive lure, Cuban writes that “effective student learning … resides in the relationship between student and teacher.” The statement is made with a flourish, as if to answer, once and for all, an ongoing argument with those who believe that there’s value in tools that “mine” education data for teachers and surface valuable nuggets of information.

Here’s the problem, what we need are data pragmatists.

Data pragmatists (and I count myself as one) believe that the entire point of using education data is to enhance the relationship between student and teacher. Education data tools are only valuable to the extent that they are used, by educators, to address the real and very specific strengths and struggles of individual students.

Cuban’s post also notes a story about a study in which machine-based data collection missed the very obvious real-world impact of a broken elevator. The point seems to be that data alone, data used in the absence of human observation, obscures reality. But again, only the most marginal data boosters would suggest that educators be left out of the picture.

The big value of big data is its ability to enhance human observation. And the big value of tools that can mine education data is their ability to bring disparate data together to give a teacher a more nuanced and holistic picture of his or her students.

Teachers should not be data miners…but should be data-literate

I have not met a single teacher who went into teaching for love of data. I don’t expect to. But equipping teachers to use tools that enhance student learning is both wise and necessary.

Given the explosion of new tools in the education sector marketplace, Cuban and other skeptics are correct on some critical points:

  • We must not get seduced simply because shiny new tools promise the moon.
  • We have to be selective about choosing the right data to surface and about the tools we ask teachers to use. (And, in fact, we should ensure that teacher input is integrated into tool design and selection.)
  • We must empower educators with time in the day, establish processes that foster collaboration, and provide training that enables them to make use of data-driven insights.

But we can’t ignore or dismiss the power that’s now available. Our kids and teachers deserve to benefit from this brave, new world.

Lori Fey is president of the president of the Ed-Fi Alliance.  If you’re a K-12 educator with a strong point of view on how data could be—or is—used to make a difference for kids in the classroom, the Ed-Fi team would love to hear from you. Email to share your story!