Dat-ugh Part I: The fallacy of dashboards
What data should we be paying attention to?
According to Wikipedia, the word dashboard originally referred to a piece of wood or leather that protected carriage or sleigh drivers from mud and debris that might be “dashed up” by a horse’s hooves.
From there, it evolved to protect drivers from the heat of combustion engine and then to locate some basic instrument gauges. Its modern form contains displays for everything from a car’s speed to its tire pressure and GPS location.
When I drive, I pay attention to a few key pieces of data from my dashboard: my speed and my gas gauge.
I take those two pieces of easily-understood, quantitative data, and I connect them to much more complex, qualitative data: the road conditions around my CR-V. And that’s how I manage to drive safely each day.
In education, we’ve also got dashboards: typically web interfaces that also display key pieces of data (KPI, or Key Performance Indicators) on everything from a school’s daily attendance rate (ours is awful right now) to the number of students who earned a B in reading on the last report card (at Ziegler it was 20.4%, in case you were wondering).
On one of my dashboards — I have at least 4 that I can think of — there are 51 KPI widgets displayed, each of which can be clicked on and further examined. On another dashboard, there are 15 sub-dashboards with data on everything from teacher attendance and retention to student suspensions, each of which has its own sub-dashboard that can be broken down by grade and numerous subgroups.
In theory, when I principal I take those more than 100 dashboards with complex, quantitative data and connect them to even more complex qualitative data: everything that’s happening inside the walls of my school. And that’s how I principal safely. Right?
If only. Therein lies the fallacy with our obsession with dashboards in education — they have become so complex that they no longer serve the purpose of a dashboard.
Ideally, a dashboard would provide school leaders with a few — three to five at most — KPI that better help them understand the complex conditions within every classroom and make decisions accordingly.
Instead, we have inundated leaders with so much data that I am no longer certain what numbers I should be looking at each day. Am I going too fast, endangering others and risking a hefty ticket? Or will I run out of gas and be stranded in late March with still lots of road ahead of us?
I don’t know what those three to five numbers should be — and I’m not sure we even have education data widgets analogous to a speedometer and gas gauge.
I am worried, though, that this data dashboard paralysis might be contributing to our achievement plateau. Am I too consumed by the numbers on the screen and not focusing enough on the qualitative data around me — the tone of a teacher’s voice, the success of a brief interaction between two students, or even the taste of the cafeteria food?
I’ll keep thinking and writing for answers. And, in the meantime, I’m going to reconfigure my dashboard at school to at least protect me from mud and heat — our recess yard is in dire need of a revamp! Thanks for reading, and have a great week.