Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Who's Your Data?

Ahh, data.  The answer to all our dreams and desires.

Data is all the rage in education today.  The answer to any question is the same.  Is attendance affecting our test scores?  Let’s look at the data.  Teachers are complaining about cell phones in the classroom.  Let’s look at the data.  The math department says the new textbooks stink.  Let’s look at the data.

It’s the answer the people who rule education give when the question goes against their agenda and they want to dismiss or ignore the issue.  Now, that doesn’t mean data can’t be helpful.  Sure it can.  But some questions aren’t best answered by hard science.  Quantitative analysis doesn’t work for every question, in spite of the certainty we all like to ascribe to numbers.

So, after a BLT (Building Leadership Team) meeting one day in October 2009, and after musing on the backwash, I had a few reflections.

My theme is “Where’s the data?”

Like the old Wendy’s commercial about beef, sometimes in the most vital of contexts, such as hamburgers, the most important details can be hard to find.

So the district continues to pile things on us, such a 48-page C-SNIP, and we must continually spend more time doing all these tasks while at the same time being reminded about the importance of instruction, “standards” that change every year, “rigor,” and “high expectations.”  (The real document is called the CSIP.  It’s the latest acronym, and I’ve already forgotten what it stands for, but it’s something about curriculum and instruction with targeted goals in areas like math, writing, and reading.  They make us do a new one every year, because the old one is never good enough)

Here is some data:
If we passed out copies of the as yet unfinished C-SNIP to our staff of about 80, this would take about four fifths of a box of paper, nearly 8 reams.  That’s assuming 50 pages of administratium per teacher.  And it is the same document we have edited and re-edited, and re-editeditedited every year for the last several years, while the core content of it has changed very little.  Weeks and weeks are devoted to this document at all levels of the educational establishment, and yet, what is its purpose?  Is it meeting a need, or simply creating new ones?

Is it because of the C-SNIP that we added a homework center, or did we do it because it’s a good idea?  Is it because of the C-SNIP that we have finally added in-house detention, or did we do it because it was just a good idea?  You get the point.

I’m all for goals, and I’ve been in favor of pursuing the major goals we have outlined and have had in our transformation plan/CSIP/next winning acronym since the outset (the five major areas at my school are math, reading, writing, school culture, and technology).  Indeed, we have seen major improvements in our reading and writing scores, and the math scores were getting better until last year, though they went up again with the reformatted HSPE (formerly WASL) this year.  And our school culture is far better than it was six years ago, for a host of probable reasons I won’t go into here.

So there’s some data to show that our efforts have had an effect.  Then why do we need to revamp the entire document?  This is a colossal waste of time.  It’s epic.

The real reason, I believe, is because the people in power need to keep their jobs.  This is a cynical view, I realize, and by and large I despise cynicism, especially in education.  But how else do we explain it?  Where is the data that indicates that revamping the C-SNIP into a 48-page tome will make any difference at all in the improvement of our school?  What’s wrong with the current version?  The slick, 10-page, easy-to-digest version has the same basic information.

Thus, my proposal:
We should choose just one goal for each section, and leave the rest blank.  That makes five goals total.  And we should make these goals very simple.  Example: “Improve school attendance data from 68% to 70% on Fridays after lunch.”  Or, “Increase usage of the school lunch program from 35% to 37%.”  Or, we could get a little more ambitious and go with “increase our math WASL scores from 27% to 30%.”

Contrast that with the alternative, which in the extreme would be to max out the SMART goals in all five categories.  The C-SNIP allows for setting up to 50 goals as a staff (not to be confused with the two or three individual SMART goals all teachers must also write and meet on their own), all to be accomplished in one year.  That’s an average devotion of 3.6 days per goal, assuming no snow days.

Now, I don’t know about you, but 3.6 days isn’t quite enough to improve the MAP scores of 400 ninth graders, especially when we have to simultaneously address the expected improvements in the other 49 goals.  I guess we’ll just have to be professionals.

Which brings us back to the question: “Where’s the data?”

Why don’t we ask the district to show us the data on the effect of having 50 SMART goals that no one will read because we’re too busy trying to make our students smarter?

Let’s see the data on the efficacy of Word Walls.

Or how about the data on having an average of 16 standardized tests per month, five of which have to be administered off-site on field trips we won’t be told about until the day before.  Where’s the data showing that these tests are actually improving the education of our students.  Is it possible we are spending so much time testing our students that we have none left to teach them?  There’s the MAP, the PSAT, the DWA (3 times!), the SAT, the HSPE, the bilingual test, the math diagnostics, the DRP, the SNAFU and the GOAT.  And in addition to all these, we have the numerous surveys we keep giving.

Standardization is the religion of the secular world.

Where’s the data on pulling kids out of sixth period for sports two times a week for three months?  How does this affect their academics?  And this is because of the bus drivers’ schedules, from what I’ve been told.  Not because the games start this early.

Where’s the data on how posting learning objectives improves student performance?  This is another of the current fads.  Don’t give us any of that anecdotal stuff.  If Aki Kurose is doing such a great job with their learning objectives (which we were told, in a tone meant to inspire us), I’ll take that to mean they won’t be sending us any more kids who can’t focus on an academic task for more than 19 seconds.  Or that we won’t be getting any more kids who think that 348,912 rounds to 349.   That we will get students who can right a coherent sentence rather then useing all kinds of bad words choice.  Structure sentences good.

Rather, the model future freshmen from that school will be able to listen to the teacher, remove the n-word from their vocabulary, not throw garbage all over the place, bring a pencil to class, and value education more than the shiny buttons on their “dumbness enhancers” (cell phones, at that age).

If Aki Kurose starts sending us these kinds of students, then maybe I’ll consider their learning objectives to be having a positive effect.  But if over the next few years I still have to battle all those low-skilled behaviors, then pardon me for my rash deductive skills, but I’d say the data shows those learning objectives to be making not a darn bit of difference.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they will make a difference.  But those are the things that matter.  That’s the data I care about.  And so maybe we will see a difference in a few years.  But that’s a big maybe.  See, it’s not about having good data.  It’s about the data that matters to the person using it.  We all have plenty of data.  We just ignore that data which goes against our beliefs.

The point is, why is this kind of stuff constantly being thrown our way without any hint of data to support it?  The district doesn’t know it will help.  Where’d they get it from?  If they have data, let’s see it.  And it can’t come from a select-prep school in New York that requires five-page applications to screen out the students who can’t spell.

I gave this a lot of thought, and here’s the reason it bugs me: These kinds of requirements are only necessary because of the minority of teachers who aren’t up to the task.  For those of us who know what we’re doing and put a lot of effort into doing it well, this stuff seems trite and burdensome.  It’s just not necessary.

I’ve got pages of data from my classroom that prove my students learn and learn very well.  I already know I’m doing a good job, and this year I’m going to do an even gooder one.  I have a weekly plan up every week, and have done so since my first year.  I can try to alter what I write in there a little bit so it will meet the (religious-like) requirements, but I already know it won’t make a bit of difference.

If I write “chemical formulas” on my board, I’m told this is just an agenda item. But if I write “write chemical formulas,” now it has magically become a learning objective.  So one word is going to inflame the educational passions of my students and will vault them to the next level?


It’s the content and the substance of what goes on in a classroom, how a lesson, unit, and curriculum are structured, how work is assessed in a timely fashion, how there is a constant stream of formative assessment, how students are made to express their understanding in written and oral formats individually and in groups.  This is called teaching.  I learned how to do it, and I get better at it every year.  I know what I’m doing.  So do a lot of other teachers.

And yet these silly kinds of requirements are continually foisted upon us because of the “other” teachers, the ones I keep hearing about but don’t know specifically.  Our time gets wasted; our stress increases, students keep needing the same things from us they have always needed, and I keep giving it.  And yet I keep hearing about how we need to raise the bar all across the school.  The bar is so high sometimes it tries to escape through the faulty ventilation ducts.

There is one thing–one major, enormous, elephant in the room thing–that we could do that would make a bigger difference than all the C-SNIPs you can shake a defunct WASL at.  It would improve education at every school in the nation.

What is it?  Do I have data?  Show us the numbers!

Remove the one or two kids per class who wreck the learning environment for the other 34, and you will see improvement.  My data?  One day last year, my worst (behaviorally) student in 5th period was suspended for a day.  The day he was gone, my activity went well, students learned, we stayed on task, and good discussion took place.

Once he returned, we were back to telling him to sit down five hundred times per day, to stop bugging other students, to have to suffer through arguments about how I lost his work, and that he’s sure he turned it in, and blah blah blah.  Nothing I can write a referral about, but everything that lowers the quality of the learning environment. And yes, all his other teachers have problems with him too.  Yes I’ve met his mother.  Yes I make notes on ESIS.  Yes I sign in. Yes, I don’t abuse my sick days (not one missed day all year last year, actually).  Yes I use my word wall (and I like word walls, by the way...it was just an example..). Yes I do one dance per year, etc...

But if I had authority–real authority–and was able to temporarily or permanently remove kids from my class for reasons I deem severe enough, and if every teacher had this authority, we would see a big change.  A BIG change.  So big we should write it in capital letters.  Like the C-SNIP.  We would actually have the respect of our students again–even the bad ones.  Or, they’d be removed from school.  Is that sad?  Insensitive of me? 

Why do we pander to the 5% worst students, most of whom drop out anyway, at the great and costly expense to the other 95%?  Why are we so sensitive to the ones who already don’t care about anything, and we just think all the rest will somehow still get served, and meet their highest potential?  Should education be a right through the age of 18?  A fair question.

A great article we read at the start of the year backs me up on this.  You can’t hold someone accountable for an outcome if you don’t give them the authority that is required to meet it.  That’s what the Educational Leadership article writer understands.  And the previous paragraph is the authority that it would take to have a genuine impact in the lives of a majority of students.  Give us the power to remove students, permanently if necessary, who are destroying the learning environment.  If the students knew we could do this, they would change, if they really care about their future.

But this we know will never happen.  For a host of reasons we all already know.

Yet, the data supports it.  I guess not all data is created equal.  Or, perhaps, some data is just more equal than other data.

Data we might want to start listening to is the one that says 30% of new teachers leave the profession within 3 years.  Why?  Is it the challenges of the job, or the never-ending intrusions from people who don’t know but have all the influence? Or the Pro-Cert?  Surely there’s a survey about that somewhere....

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