Thursday, June 27, 2013

I'll Respect You More if You Stop Using the Word "Data"

It can be pretty difficult listening to instructional coaches, administrators, or superintendents talk about effective teaching these days without hearing one word that has begun to send shivers down the backs of teachers.

"Good instructional leaders know how to use data to improve instruction."

"Good teachers analyze student data to make solid instruction decisions."

It reminds me most often of this silly clip:



Now, don't get me wrong. It's not that I think using information we glean from students to instruct them is a bad idea. I think educators have been doing that for millennia. When we notice students aren't understanding something, we slow down or alter the way we transmit the information.

I also believe that taking time to analyze information we gather from students can be quite useful. When we only look at information students are providing us one way, we're prone to overlook what could be powerful teachable moments.

But let's unpack the meaning of an assertion like the one below:

"Good teachers analyze student data to make solid instruction decisions."

I don't have a problem with what might be meant when it's suggested that good teachers analyze student data. If you take the sentence at face value, it could mean that teachers should do anything and everything from engaging in extended conversations with students to assess their learning to pouring over answers on multiple-choice tests.

Sure - at face value, the idea that good teachers analyze data to make instructional decisions is a reasonable assertion.

But after a few years in and around public education, you learn very quickly that that assertion is not meant to be taken at face value. Those of us literate in edujargon are well aware that the word data means something very specific here, and it can depend on your context, but it most often refers to whatever standardized assessment your school (and more and more often your school's teachers) will be evaluated with. For more on this, see my long-winded attempt to break down the silliness of data-driven instruction in this series of posts.

As teachers, and as members of the public, we need to understand that much of education is a numbers game for instructional coaches, administrators, and superintendents: decrease truancy, improve test scores, improve graduation rates. The same is true for teachers who are now being evaluated on "student achievement" - read: standardized test scores.

We also desperately need to understand that playing that numbers game well often has unintended negative consequences, which have all been fleshed out over and over again by public education advocates: narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, cheating, elimination of arts and physical education programs, etc.

It is all of these ideas that run through my head whenever I hear someone talk about using data in schools. I know what you mean. And I need you to know that "data" is usually not the information that helps me best understand my students.

As the avatar in the clip above tries to explain, there are many ways we can learn about our students' understanding. I will use my own information, evidence if you will, to guide my instruction. Data is for career advancement. 

16 comments:

  1. I'm so old that I remember when assessments used to be called "tests".

    Remember that?

    Good times, those days...

    Using data these days mostly means collecting useless evidence in order to prove you're not an incompetent teacher, spending many extra hours in soul-sucking, tree-killing activity that could be better used working with students, developing interesting lessons or becoming more knowledgeable about your subject and methodology.

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    1. Haha. I do remember that time. I think I was in middle school. ;)

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  2. Awesome post!! You need to send this to Solution Tree! They need to be schooled in the use of "data" in schools.

    Bravo!

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    1. Wow. I'd never heard of Solution Tree. But they look kind of scary. What's your experience with them?

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  3. James, it sounds like you need a Data Shield. The obsession with meaningless data is sinking the public ed ship...

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  4. The people pushing the Trojan horse through our gates like some wonderful gift know that teachers have (for ages) and already do generate and use data that is useful for instruction. While test-driven instruction is being SOLD as an objective measure, it is a campaign of deception and is dangerous in the way it is consuming education. A good driver glances occasionally at the speedometer and dashboard gauges, keeping in mind the destination, the traffic around them, prepared to react to any surprises/lane shifts/weather changes...the many many factors that cam impact the drive from A to B.
    "Data driven" already existed, but reformers want to make "data" mean "numbers we can use to keep/sort/fire and control costs/generate profit." But imagine driving from A to B ignoring the road, the weather,the traffic around you...only staring at the gauges on the dashboard. The lucky few might make it to B, I guess.

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    1. I really love that analogy, Dan. It's spot on. One of the best I've heard so far.

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  5. I'm getting ready to start my 38th year of teaching. I've always used information gleaned from students to inform my instruction. As a music teacher, I have been told to generate certain types of "data" which amounts to nothing more than extra work for me and loss of precious instructional time for my students. Basically, I find myself having to create data for its own sake. Fortunately I've learned how to play that game in such a way to satisfy my administrators without losing valuable time, but it really bugs me that I even have to do so.

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    1. I'm also a Music Teacher, now being required to produce data on my students' progress. I see them all (K-6) once a week for 40 minutes. Doing an assessment takes at least 15 minutes generally. Please share briefly what you do to satisfy your admins without loosing time. Thanks!

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    2. This reminds me of the year I taught in DC back when Michelle Rhee was chancellor. Our administrators required that we meet with them three times a year with binders full of data. Teachers scrambled to put these things together and often fabricated much of it.

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    3. Maria - you ask a really, really hard question. How do you do that? I wish I knew.

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  6. Data is a four letter word. Reformers should have their mouths washed out with soap. (-:

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