Digital data and the corporate reform of schools

The heightened use of digital data in schools can be justified along many different lines. One particular congruence is with the broader ‘corporate reform of education’. This is the push for running schools along business-led lines – favouring market forces, competition and the efficiencies of corporate management and organisational techniques. In many ways, the notion of the ‘smart school’ fits neatly into this way of thinking. Similarly, the idea of data-driven decision making and the heightened use of data as a form of monitoring and improving school performance also fits squarely within this approach.

Katrina Bulkley describes on the ‘Have You Heard’ podcast [transcript / audio from around 5:25] how such ideas for school reform (currently evident in the US ‘portfolio’ model for school districts) is predicated on the perceived need to ‘inject instability’ into the public school system. Crucially (in terms of our own research interests), digital data clearly plays an important role in supporting and sustaining this instability.

Bulkley outlines the prevailing logic that public schools are hampered by the “problem of permanence” – i.e. the fact that schools are safe in the knowledge that they can continue operating each year regardless of their performance. Similarly, critics feel that the assurance that tenured teaching staff will remain employed in permanent positions gives them little incentive to try to improve their performance. As Bulkley points out, these arguments reflect a narrow set of what motivates educators – with the assumption that external motivators are an important missing aspect of the school system.

Nevertheless, the heightened use of data fits neatly into the corporate reform desire to make schooling “contingent not permanent”. In other words, schools need to be continually assessed and challenged to prove that they are meeting goals and targets for improvement. This sense of contingency and having to meet predefined targets will therefore motivate schools and staff to improve. The logic here is that staff should also be given increased autonomy to make changes that they feel are require to reach these goals. In this sense, an increased individual autonomy to monitor one’s performance and make the necessary changes lies at the heart of continually improving school systems.

There is much to reflect (and perhaps push back) on here. For the time being, it is worth thinking how this logic might be shaping the use of digital data within schools. Indeed, the corporate reform ethos is steadily taking hold across many education systems (Australia included), and is part of what critics might refer to as the creeping marketization or neoliberalisation of public education.

These values and ideas certainly cast the idea of school data in a different light to the more progressive, liberally-minded notion of ‘good data’. As the past 40 years of sociological study of technology has shown, we should always remain mindful that the same technologies, tools and techniques can be imbued with very different forms of politics.