School Data

Antwan Jefferson, PhD



I’ll keep this letter brief.

First, on the day that I’m writing this letter, our city and region are experiencing the immediate after-effects of an act 

of gun violence in another of our community’s schools. There is nothing, really, for a local, community-based education journal to do except to share our admiration and appreciation for Jerald Mason and Eric Sinclair, to hope for their full recovery, to acknowledge our shared grief with the community of Angels, and to say the one thing there is to say: 


And also, Please, someone (esp. legislators, school boards, parents,), do something to end this.


On to this issue.

At the heart of this issue is an epistemological dilemma in the form of a question, one that I hope you will consider as you read through it: 

how do we know what we know?

It shows up as we try to sort out what we can know from school outcomes data and what we learn about what families and students (and others members of the region’s diverse communities) know based upon their school experiences. And in the center of this sorting is the dilemma: Who knows? How do they know?

Is data only data if it comes in the form of numbers, spreadsheets, rankings? Or, does data refer to people’s actual and lived experiences, a community’s values, children’s senses (of safety, of belonging, of self), or the wide range of other information that is difficult to measure or present neatly? The answer is both, and more than both.

Schools compete for students, funds, qualified staff, and reputation, and numerical data often are invoked to inform winners and losers. 

In the short-term, students are most likely to suffer from such a narrow understanding of data (yes, numerical, aka quantitative, data in isolation is hella narrow). Students also are more likely to lose in the long-term, but so are we. As we have learned in developing this issue, we’ve encountered many more questions about school data than answers, and the same is true for the community: lots of uncertainty about school data that fails to answer their questions. 

  • How does the parent of a middle school student know what sort of high school their child needs to attend? 
  • How does a school know that they’re doing what they should be doing (and in public schooling, is this should determined 

by educators, legislators, board members, school leaders, the public, or….)? 

Truly, these are thorny questions, but they’re to be expected in our public schooling system: taxpayer-funded education, free at the point of delivery, with post-secondary readiness goals influenced by employers and nostalgics. 

How’s the saying go: You can please all of the people some of the time; you can please some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time. (Note: the original statement has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though this is debatable). Replace the verb please with the verb fool and you’ll see a version of the “original” statement. Given community questions about whether to trust school data, though, both fool and please appear quite relevant. 

Well, there goes my “brief” opening.