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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Data Doesn’t Tell Us Everything

By Peter DeWitt — April 06, 2012 4 min read
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“When people find their medium, they discover their real creative strengths and come into their own. Helping people to connect with their personal creative capacities is the surest way to release the best they have to offer.” Sir Ken Robinson

Over the past few years our nation has become very data driven. Data can provide us with a great deal of information about students. It can tell us whether students have learned specific information which is typically assessed through standardized testing. There are many researchers who push for data driven decision making and they make learning sound very scientific. However, learning is so much more than scientific and yet we seem to constantly be searching for ways to keep numbers on what our students learn.

We like to put thing in neat little categories. If we only had a number for everything we can weed out who is learning and which teachers are successful at teaching. We see it in the media all the time. When a movie comes out and earns millions of dollars in the box office it must be a great movie. Those movies that do not make millions must be terrible. After all, the larger the number the bigger the success! However, we know it does not work that way. Some of our favorite movies may not have been box office hits. The movies that made the most money might not be intriguing to us at all. The numbers don’t tell us everything.

Data does have a place in some decisions. For example, on the first of every month Education Week sends me the number of hits my blog received the previous month. It is broken down by story. There are some stories that do very well and others that do not do well at all. It’s important for me to see what stories do the best, and it allows me to gauge what ideas may be seen as the best. I once wrote a blog entitled Why Educators Should Join Twitter and it was the most read blog that I wrote. As much as I liked writing about Twitter, it will not be my chosen subject every time I write a blog. If it was, I may never break out of my comfort area and write about other topics. How boring would that be?

It’s Only Part of the Story
The numbers behind the blogs only tells part of the story. There are days when bigger news stories came out and readers didn’t spend their time reading this blog. Other times the blogs were just not that good, so people were not interested in the subject. Other times I uploaded too many blogs in a given period and people could not keep up with them. The numbers were nice to see but they do not have a great influence on what I choose to write.

I’m concerned we are going down a scientific road and losing our balance. By moving toward keeping numbers for everything that students learn, educators are teaching directly to what will be on the assessment but the test only gives part of the story. Bad days, rough home environments, lack of sleep, another student getting out of control and interrupting the testing environment can all have an effect on how students do but it doesn’t mean the students are not learning. In addition, the subject being tested may not be of interest to students so they are not engaged in the test which is supposed to “show what they know.”

We should be concerned that we have moved into an area that will take us decades to recover from because we are killing creativity in the classroom in an effort to raise our data driven numbers. More and more teachers will feel pressured to teach to the test...not that that’s a new phenomenon. Teaching to the test has been around since NCLB began. What is new is that it is becoming an acceptable practice.

Finding Common Ground
“Education, of course, is overloaded with programs and data. The growth of digital power has aided and abetted the spread of accountability-driven data-adequate yearly progress, test results, for every child in every grade, common core standards, formative and summative assessments galore” (Sharratt & Fullan. P.2).

For a few weeks a year we have to give high stakes testing to our students. The tests are too long and there is a lack of trust between the schools that give the tests and the state education departments that force them upon us. However, we are guilty of some of this as well. In an effort to keep data, we are quickly losing our balance and keeping data on everything that our students do and that is wrong.

We need to find some common ground where all of this is concerned. We need to pull back on data and make sure we push forward with creativity. The balance is hard to find and sometimes we will go too far in one direction but our students deserve the kinds of classes that we learned in when we were young. Classes where they can find their true strengths and work on their weaknesses. We just need to stop looking at the numbers all the time and begin to look up at our students.

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Robinson, Sir Ken (2012). Out of Our Minds. Learning to Be Creative. Capstone Press. United Kingdom.
Sharratt & Fullan (2012). Putting Faces on Data. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.