[Schools are not simply making use of data themselves … a city like Melbourne has a growing industry of ‘outside’ sources of assistance and support]
Many schools with ambitions to make better use of data are turning to various forms of ‘outside’ assistance. Growing numbers of schools are now reaching the conclusion that moving beyond basic forms of data use might well require specialised expert assistance.
Indeed, even the relatively ‘data-savvy’ schools in our research project are beginning to engage with different forms of outside help. For example, Melbourne now has a burgeoning school data marketplace where local businesses offer various data services to individual schools. These companies are often small-scale in their operations – offering to directly conduct analyses for schools, offer bespoke data analytics platforms to analyse student data, or provide training and consultancy advice to help school staff engage with data.
Throughout the duration of our time in the schools, Brookdale, Weston and Northland have all been fielding sale-pitches and offers from data analytic services. Some schools have only made limited use of these services. For example, a few staff from Weston’s ‘data leadership’ team have attended sessions run by data coaches affiliated with the Harvard ‘Datawise’ program. These coaches are local ex-teachers trained and accredited by US-based data programmes favoured by the Victorian Department of Education
Perhaps the most interest in looking outside the school was evident in Brookdale. Indeed, the school makes regular use of a data consultant working through an independent education research organisation who they contract to run annual analyses of their examination data. Similar services are being offered to local schools by other external organisations – including academics from a couple of local universities. As one of the school’s Assistant Principals explained, the value of such a service includes being able to gain a sense of how Brookdale compares with the consultant’s other clients:
One good thing about Margaret is that she also tells you how you rank against other schools as well. So she does this for about 40 or 50 schools. So you can see how our accounting class did against them … Of course the problem with that is that Margaret charges $2,000 to do this! But we consider it pretty important and we’ve done it for a long, long time. There’d be a lot of schools who would see that investment as lower on their list of priorities for spending money … But it is great to see where you lie in the whole scheme of things.
Perhaps most boldly, Brookdale had also gone a step further and recruited a corporate data professional into a newly-created role of ‘Data Analyst’. Kyra had previously worked as a Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing consultant in a number of corporate positions. For Brookdale’s leadership team, then, this decision to move from teacher-led data work to a full-time ‘professional’ hire marked a significant shift to doing data properly:
You know, we’ve got so much data, we’re data rich but we’ve got to make it work for us and it wasn’t happening, it really wasn’t happening … so we’ve been saying that probably for the last six years … and so those conversations evolved into the need of someone like Kyra – but it’s not easy to find a data analyst! … She’s got that technical knowhow … she’s a great resource – we’d hate to lose her.
In contrast, Kyra recognised that moving from the corporate to education sector might be seen as a step-down in career terms – albeit a welcome mover to what she saw as a better work/life balance:
Neil: So, are there lots of people from the corporate BI section looking for jobs in schools?
Kyra: I don’t think so. It’s just because of my kids and family stuff it’s just a personal decision to move to schools … ideally corporate BI people don’t move to schools. It’s like a career step backwards. But it’s just this data analysis role just fitted me with the holidays and stuff and was still a technical thing and still had the hours that I was looking for. Yeah. So I knew the universities have this kind of role, but I didn’t know the schools have this role.
This rising significance of such external services and roles in Melbourne schools reflects the exalted status being attached to the idea of the professional ‘data analyst’ in the practical implementation of the data-driven society. These are actors that promise to tame and draw meaning from masses of data. Our research schools were understandably happy to delegate some responsibility for ‘doing data’ to these external sources of support – hopeful that individuals like Margaret and Kyra might coax some extra sense and additional narrative from their schools’ data. The expectation of these external analysts somehow acting as some form of ‘data wrangler’ or ‘data whisperer’ is therefore a telling feature of how our schools are working through the current hype around datafication. As David Beer (2019, p.101) reflects:
“These figures are expected to create insights through a combination of skill, analytical ability and the capability to know and martial both the data and the analytical tools available. Time pressed and data rich, the analyst’s skilled glance is seen to be of great value”.