In a piece earlier this week at Trend CT, Achieve Hartford’s Rob Steller highlighted the troubling statistic that only 1 in 4 Hartford high school graduates in the 2007 cohort were able to obtain a college degree within 6 years.

While this is indeed troubling, I disagree with Mr. Steller’s conclusion: “I’m a firm believer that informed change can only happen with effective use of data. Data helps us understand where the problem areas are and hold the key to figuring out the solutions . . . we are urged to collect more robust data on this issue so it can be utilized by our local universities, colleges, urban districts, college prep programs, and community-based organizations that work with students to begin identifying the problem areas.”

Could Mr. Steller have missed the economic data that is staring the rest of us in the face? For instance, how the cost of attending college has outpaced the Consumer Price Index by a factor of almost 4.4 times since the first quarter of 1978.

Meanwhile on the income front, if you aren’t in the top quintile, incomes have remained virtually flat. Factor in the fact that Congress cut Pell grants for needy students and figuring out why students coming from lower income families are having a hard time affording four years of college at one time isn’t exactly rocket science — unless you are studiously ignoring the facts while chanting “no excuses.”

But wait — there’s more! As Mark Twain observed, there are “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Or as we used to say in the olden days of Geekdom: “garbage in, garbage out.” When a Hartford magnet school spends 59 out of 180 mandated school days in standardized testing, I hardly think “more robust data” is the answer.

The problem in Hartford, as it is nationwide since the passage of No Child Left Behind, is that the singleminded emphasis on data has resulted in the twin tragedies of billions spent on expensive technology and hours of meaningful learning lost to standardized testing. What has our nation received in return? Garbage data and not much in the way of actual improvement — in fact, when it comes to effective written expression, a horrendous decline.

What’s more, administrators whose compensation depends upon data have every incentive to ensure it comes out in the most income-maximizing way. Elected Hartford Board of Education member Robert J. Cotto Jr., the Director of Urban Educational Initiatives at Trinity College, has tackled this issue in the past, first highlighting how switching special education students from the CAPT/CMT to the MAS (Modified Assessment System) allowed Hartford education reformers to claim their policies were successful.

“School and central office employees earned bonuses if test scores increased.” Cotto wrote for the Courant. “In 2010, this ‘merit’ pay amounted to $2.77 million dollars. Most disturbingly, the test score inflation led the public to believe that the current reforms improved the quality of education. Proponents of school choice, charter schools and test-based accountability schemes point to Hartford as a national model for change. On the contrary, Hartford’s model, based on the single-measure of student test scores, is an example of a poor reform policy. It is a model pioneered in the 1990s in Houston and now widely recognized as a fraud — what Walter Haney, a researcher of evaluation systems, called an ‘illusion arising from exclusion’.”

Both Mr. Cotto and Kerri Provost at Real Hartford wrote about the policy instituted by then-Superintendent Stephen Adamowski, whereby teachers were instructed to transform F’s to a minimum grade of 55% in order to improve graduation rates.

Garbage in, garbage out, particularly when there are strong cash incentives involved.

Shaun Mitchell, a high school teacher in Bridgeport and recipient of the 2014 Theodore and Margaret Beard Excellence in Teaching Award, said “Data is useless. When my kids come in and haven’t had a meal since lunch the previous day, or had serious trauma, or are taking multiple anxiety medications, or when they just spent their morning caring for their siblings because mom and dad are working 3 jobs — how can they be expected to come in and focus on a test that means nothing to them? The data is skewed and will always be skewed. As I proctored the SBAC today, I cried for public education.”

Where does the data take that into account? Where does the data show that not every school in Bridgeport has a dedicated psychologist, so when kids undergo trauma a psychologist might not be on site to help them process?

Reformers seem to be happy to hear and see no data on the factors we already know are important for college success. For example, what’s the ratio of students per guidance counselor in Hartford or Bridgeport vs. a suburban high school like Greenwich or Darien? How many kids have access to a certified school librarian and a well-stocked library in their school? Because there’s 40 years of peer reviewed research to show that a certified school librarian helps with not just with improving literacy but also with teaching students the information literacy skills they need for college and the workplace.

What would be useful data? Here’s Ann Policelli Cronin, a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education:

“The data we need is the data that tells us what the adults, the citizens, the legislators, and the governor are doing about children and adolescents who suffer the effects of poverty and racism in the state,” Policelli Cronin said. “We already know that the communities of affluence send almost all of their high school graduates to college, and we already know that only a small percentage of the urban poor high school graduates will complete a college education. We also, if we are honest, know the cause of the disparity in college graduation rates: Children of affluence have time with resourceful adults, complete healthcare, many books in their homes, trips to museums and vacations in interesting places, plentiful food, and safe neighborhoods. Let’s collect the data on how Connecticut adults are doing in making those essentials available for all kids. Let’s have standards of decency and compassion for adults to meet instead of punishing kids who don’t meet the arbitrary standards of the Common Core as measured by tests correlated with family income.”

I’ll end with what I’m sick of hearing as the solution to all of our educational and employment woes — “teach kids to code.” Back in the 1980’s I learned to code — in Pascal. Guess how many people still use Pascal as a programming language? Zero. With the ever-accelerating pace of technological change, who’s to say that coding we teach kids today is going to remain a marketable career skill in their future?

Teach kids to code, but thinking that’s the solution shows a complete lack of understanding of what a real education should look like. What’s infinitely more important is that students learn how to think, to research, to evaluate, to analyze, and to advocate — in other words, that we teach them the skills they need to be good citizens as well as good employees.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of

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Sarah Darer Littman

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of books for young people. Her latest novel, Some Kind of Hate, comes out Nov. 1 from Scholastic Press.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.