Introducing Education by the Numbers

DataBlogPikSmallThe fetishization of data has hit both education and journalism. And that’s why I’m starting this datablog. My aims are many. I plan to list and summarize which data sets and studies are available on certain education topics as a resource for journalists and other lay people. I’d like to write about interesting people who are crunching education data. And I will write about new data studies or stories about the use of data. At times, I will try my own hand at some data analysis and graphs.

Most of all, my aim is to become educated enough about education data to develop ideas for data projects. I’m convinced the way to become a new-fangled data journalist is to start getting messy with numbers.

I’m new at this. I’ve been an old-fashioned print and radio reporter for 20 years. I have a few graduate courses in statistics under my belt. From that experience, it seems to me that data analysis is a group exercise. At a minimum, it’s helpful to have a partner to check your work and find your mistakes. So this will be an experiment in flying solo. I’m hoping readers will comment and criticize like peer reviewers. I will keep refining and editing as we go along.

I’m fascinated with what data can tell us about which education programs work and which don’t. I’m openly curious about so-called “adaptive learning” — the idea that we can mine data to understand how each human brain learns and design personalized curriculum for each student.

For me, it all began with a data analysis course at Columbia Teachers College taught by Prof. Doug Ready. Our seminar class spent a year playing around with a large data set of kindergarten students as a vehicle for learning statistical techniques and SPSS statistical software. I loved asking the data questions. Does music instruction improve math ability? Do the children of Tiger Mothers score higher on tests? The answers often depended on socio-economic status. One answer for rich kids. The opposite answer for poor kids.

As I begin this, I’m not sure how much I trust the answers that the data spit out. I’ve learned that small changes in how you crunch the numbers can generate different answers. Sometimes the data you have isn’t really the right data to answer your question. Often the correlations you find are just coincidental and you can’t conclude that doing x will produce y result.

At its core, data analysis is unsettling. Until now, we’ve relied on the experience, wisdom and hunches of veteran educators to say how to teach our children. Many now hope the data know better and will somehow save education.

I’m curious to see what the data say and factor it in.

POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON March 8, 2013

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1) All Snark: Just what we need! More attention paid to bad quantitative studies in education and the claims (and policies) justified by simplistic analysis/interpretation of statistics based on measure that weren’t valid representations of the constructs in the first place! Yay!!!!!!

2) I look forward to your casting a critical eye not just at the conclusions, but of the methodological/analytical decisions made, and even at the underlying data itself.


I’m with Ceolaf (march 8 comment) in looking forward to critical eyes on all the datahype. There is an awful lot of of misuse of data out there, and misunderstanding of the methods for evaluation versus research (and resulting data.). When’s the blog rolling?!

Jim Kohlmoos

This looks like great blog. I wonder if Nate Silver would like to contribute. Trying to make sense of the avalanche of data in education is the biggest challenge. Are there new ways to analyse data that we could borrow from baseball and politics?

Fred Smith

I thought standard deviations always sounded kinky until I heard about educators and journalists who had a data fetish. Hmmm.

But seriously…. Good luck.

John Thompson


Thank you! I’m looking forward to your work.

I’d like to suggest some questions that I don’t have the stomach to pusue.

1. What has been the total cost of data-driven accountability. It is not enough to total the price tages on assessments. How much did it cost to realiign systems across the nation to teach toward those tests?

2. How many value-added studies have even attempted to test whether value-added evals can be fair toward high school teachers?

3. How many such studies and/or studies on charters have distinguished between IEP students with cognitive disabilities as opposed to serious emotional disabilities and conduct disorders?


Jill, I’m so happy that you’ve taken on this challenge. The timing is right. We’re now living in the era of “big data” and it’s here to stay. There’s even a shortage of data scientists who companies desperately need to analyze their ever increasing data to look for trends in order to customize products and services for consumers with short attention spans. It’ll be interesting to see how data analysis can be used in the field of education to truly customize learning for our Digital Natives. Best Wishes.

Omar Lopez

The blog looks interesting. Good luck, Jill!

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