Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Battle cry: reclaiming data

Wordle via the International Education Data Mining Society

Hello, and welcome to Teacher Tuesday! I hope the polar vortex hasn't left you too worse for wear. We saw historic low temperatures in Roanoke today, so school was canceled after exactly one day back from winter break. (You won't find any complaints here...)

Today I want to talk a little bit about reclaiming data as a tool to help teachers. It's all too common for data (usually in the form of test scores exclusively) to be used against teachers. When scores aren't high enough, we're asked what it is that we aren't doing to help our students be successful, as if we are willfully being poor teachers. The assumption seems to be that if your scores have not met or exceeded a magical number, then you aren't doing your job. Even worse, if you are doing the very best that you can, then the implication is made that perhaps you just aren't a good teacher. And this meeting is probably going down during your planning time, taking away what little time you have to try to make the improvements that you apparently desperately need.

In the most extreme cases, data can be used as grounds to let a teacher go. This happened at my own school last year in the math department. Math has been a weak area at my school for years, and, I suppose to show that we're doing something to try to make it better, it was determined that some teachers would need to be let go. Specifically, the teachers with the lowest scores would be let go. I have nothing good to say about using data for this purpose. It's often arbitrary, it seems to rarely take into account things like number of SpEd and/or ELL students a teacher has, and it disregards a lot of the basic rules for using statistics in a meaningful way.

Image via the Rhode Island Department of Education

That said, I really believe that data is a tool that can be used for good and not just evil. Obviously. I write a blog that I named 'Data is Your Friend.' Approaching your grading and formative assessments in a way that allows you to track how students are progressing through a unit is really powerful. Imagine reviewing for a test and providing each student with activities tailored to the skills they most need to improve. Doesn't that sound a lot more effective than just playing Jeopardy and hoping for the best? It's not even that time-consuming, it just requires organization and maybe a bit of a shift in how you approach lesson-planning and grading.

Now, granted, I know there are some people who feel like data-driven instruction reduces children to numbers, and I want to address that briefly. I am in no way suggesting that when we start incorporating more data-based decision-making into our classrooms that we abandon viewing students as human beings. I do feel very strongly that using data will improve the quality of instruction you give, but I feel equally strongly that you need to have positive relationships with your students. I am also not advocating that we only give assignments that can be quantified numerically and entered into spreadsheets. I am all for bringing creativity and critical thinking into the classroom, and I will be the first to admit that you can't necessarily assign a number to overarching cognitive skills. You can't make a rubric for everything. However, you can have meaningful relationships, allow for creativity, AND grade assignments that give you a metric for whether or not a student understands the difference between, say, phenotype and genotype.

So let's take back data for teachers and students! Let's arm ourselves with the tools to put those administrative bullies in their places! Data should be used by teachers, not against them! In the coming weeks (and, really, for as long as I'm writing this blog), it is my goal to break down the different ways to collect useful data, ways to organize, and what you should do with it all. Let's do this!

We live to fight another day,

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