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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... the Hard & Soft of It

By Peter DeWitt — February 12, 2015 4 min read
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A female staff member...let me say that again...a female staff member once said to me that a man’s brain is like a waffle and a woman’s brain is like a pancake. Men compartmentalize and women blend everything all together. It definitely played to a stereotype but the truth is that I wasn’t offended because I do like to compartmentalize my life.

Recently, I read Reframing Organizations by Bolman and Deal. They wrote about the importance of taking situations and putting them in frames. In their book they divide situations into four frames, which are Political, Human Resource, Symbolic and Structural. By looking at any situation through individual frames we are supposed to see things more clearly, and it helps us make better decisions, regardless of whether we are leaders or teachers.

The same can be said for data. Yes, data.

I get it. We pay for data on our phones and worry that companies we purchase items from may sell our data to other organizations. We try to protect our data at the same time we know that Google, Facebook and others are using it because we see our purchases....or comparable items to things we purchased already...come up on the right hand side of our computer screen because data is constantly shared.

In our schools however, the effective use of authentic data can be important. It doesn’t have to live up to the negative connotations that come with it if we choose to focus on the positive side of it all. Data can help us improve teaching and learning, and it can also help improve our school climate. Unfortunately we collect a lot of data and don’t always do anything with it.

There are multiple types of data and they usually run under two categories. In their book Using Data to Focus on Instructional Improvement (ASCD. 2013), James-Ward, Fisher, Frey and Lapp put data into those two commonly used categories...hard and soft.

The most commonly used in schools today is hard data, which unfortunately is also commonly used against schools.

Hard Data

James-Ward et al wrote that, “Hard data are quantifiable; hard data can be described with a given degree of specificity and tangibility. In addition, hard data are relatively stable in that they aren’t changed significantly by the method in which they are collected.”

Data geeks of the world unite! Hard data is what data people love. That data can come in the form of tests that are usually teacher-based, criterion-based or norm-referenced. This may be data that is used to compare cohorts of students or to compare the growth a student made over time.

James-Ward et al caution that “Numbers alone don’t tell the full story, and they are easily misused if assessment literacy is lacking.” This is also something John Hattie writes about in Visible Learning for Teachers (2012) where he says that numbers tell one part of the story and it’s important for teachers to make inferences from the numbers that they have on the paper in front of them.

Why did some students do well while others did not? How deep can we go with the questions to get a better sense of whether it was one bad day, a lack of understanding of the material, or even that we, as teachers, didn’t provide the proper feedback to increase the level of understanding by the student.

Soft Data

The other category of data are soft data. We often collect soft data but we don’t do enough with it. There are profound reasons why soft data can be powerful, but James-Ward et al provide a stellar example. They wrote,

In 1954 during a cholera outbreak in London, John Snow, one of the fathers of epidemiology attempted to solve the mystery with quantitative tools. The prevailing theory suggested that cholera was caused by pollution or bad air. Given the conditions in London at that time, that explanation was reasonable."

However, they went on to write that Snow didn’t believe it.

At first his quantitative analysis of the water did not conclusively prove its danger. Undeterred, he talked with people who lived in a specific area that had a high incidence of cholera. Going door-to-door and interviewing residents, he identified a water pump on Broad Street as the source of the outbreak (Hempel, 2007). The qualitative analysis of data was enough to convince local authorities to disable the pump."

According to James-Ward et al Snow is credited with ending the cholera outbreak. That is the power of qualitative...or soft data when used correctly. James-Ward et al define soft data as “information about student learning and instruction that is acquired by observing student and adult actions in and out of classrooms.”

But do we do enough with soft data?

We collect surveys but don’t follow through enough looking for common themes or things we can change. In our effort to collect soft data we sometimes get waylaid by other things that come our way and the surveys take up a place in our filing cabinets or document folders in the cloud.

Some of the other soft data that can be profound are documentation of the feedback principals provide to teachers or teachers provide to students. Do we take a close enough look at the feedback that students provide to us? What about their parents? Soft data can tell us a lot about our school climates.

Additionally, attendance data, student placement by subgroups, how schools interact with stakeholders, and school websites can tell us a lot about our school or other schools. When looking at our sites do we use the word “achievement” more than “growth.” Is “learning” a word that is used anywhere on your school’s website?

In the End

Collecting data doesn’t have to be cold. I spent 19 years in elementary education and I want more from teaching and learning than collecting cold hard facts. School is supposed to be about creativity and wonder as much as it should be about achievement and growth.

Contrary to popular belief, we can collect data and still have creativity. Of course, it would be easier if state education department’s trusted the data we collect and not take up so much time with new mandates and accountability measures that seem to be more about red tape than anything that can help us improve learning in our schools.

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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.