Digital data: a leadership tool or Big Brother watching you?

June 2017


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Dr LOUISE STARKEY’s research into how schools use data revealed inconsistencies among schools’ attitudes, approaches and capabilities and identified room for the development of data expertise across New Zealand schools.

surveillanceSchools are awash with digital data. Information about students, administration, resources and events are actively and passively gathered through learning management systems, CCTV, written reports, surveys and forms. Data arrives at school with the child; it is added to and analysed in multiple ways during their enrolment and used as the basis of reports to parents, boards of trustees and the Ministry of Education.

A Victoria University Spearheading our Digital Futures research group has been exploring the use of data by school leaders. The research has found that the use of data reflects the current political context and follows international trends, but with a unique New Zealand twist.

The educational reforms of 1989 saw a model of competition and choice being introduced, in which each school managed their own resources. The evidence on which parents could make a choice was limited to published league tables of qualification success of secondary schools and the assigned decile rating of schools. Therefore, choice was made by reputation and location with little correlation to quality of education. Schools were self-managing, with the Ministry of Education having a hands-off approach unless financial mismanagement was evident.

From the late 1990s through to 2010 there was an international trend of standardisation. During this time the Ministry of Education led the development of National Curriculum and Marautanga, the asTTle tool and international PISA testing began. The spotlight was turning to comparative measures of how well students were achieving. In examining this, there was evidence that groups of students were underachieving and initiatives such as Te Kotahitanga were introduced and funded through the Ministry of Education.

Having standardised measures of achievement has enabled comparisons and target setting. The focus on assessment for learning turned to assessment for accountability in 2010 with the requirement that primary schools report their national standards data to the Ministry of Education followed by the 2013 Public Services Target of 85 per cent of 18-year-olds having gained NCEA Level 2 or above by 2017.

In New Zealand we have avoided the use of mass common testing or punitive consequences that have been introduced in parts of the US and UK. However, the hands-off approach had ended as the ease of gathering and synthesising digital data has enabled the Ministry of Education to monitor national and local achievement patterns.

It was in this context that the research was carried out to explore the use of digital data by

16 school leaders in primary and secondary contexts across New Zealand. Two key findings were identified.

Firstly, while some leaders saw the collection and use of achievement data as a time-consuming and frustrating compliance requirement, others considered it primarily as the basis for strategic planning and reflection.

Within this, a tension exists for school leaders who would like to use data to track individual and cohort academic growth and engagement in school and use a range of data for strategic decision making, and the policy requirement of reporting time-bound student achievement outcome data.

This policy appears to incentivise the collection and analysis of simple codified learning data, while a more complex analysis of a range of data generated at the school level could be used to inform strategic planning. This is hampered by what the tools can do that are available for analysis.

Secondly, the capability and capacity to analyse and use data varied amongst school leaders and teachers. The leaders in larger schools, including the secondary schools, appeared to have access to this expertise and had found time to work with the data compared to those in smaller schools.

This apparent inequity was compounded by the competitive market model where each school chooses and purchases their own school management system which constitutes a significant ongoing expense for smaller schools especially if they seek to tailor the system to meet their own requirements. The available systems were reported as not meeting the needs of kura kaupapa without adaptation.

The unique self-managing context within New Zealand educational policy could be strengthened with enhanced tools to enable sophisticated strategic analysis of data and supporting the development of data expertise across schools. This could be a better future than one that is focused on accountability and compliance with the feeling that big brother is watching you.

A detailed research report from the Spearheading our Digital Futures research group is available online or
DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.27374.82247.

Dr Louise Starkey is a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Education.

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