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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Putting Faces on Data

By Peter DeWitt — February 17, 2012 4 min read
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“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).

Imagine for a moment that data isn’t becoming a dirty word. Let’s imagine that when done correctly, and with integrity, data can provide useful information about students. Jonathan Cohen from the National School Climate Center once said, “Educators are now used to data being used as a hammer rather than a flashlight.” What if we took some time to turn that around and made the data a flashlight instead of a hammer?

Yes, it would take a collaborative and trusting relationship between administrators and teachers. Those educators reading the data would have to read the data with an open mind, even if it was telling them something they may not want to hear. Those numbers represent the lives of our students. Using data requires many important conversations. First and foremost, when we have those conversations, we need to see the faces of the students.

Sharratt and Fullan
Recently, I read a new book by Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan entitled Putting Faces on the Data. I’ve interviewed Dr. Fullan (Fullan Interview) in the past and believe his views, along with Dr. Sharratt’s are always very insightful. Sometimes I feel that we are data driven to death which is why I wanted a copy of the book. I needed to see the “other side” of the data argument.

Before data gets dismissed by educators, it’s important to weed through all of the noise and figure out what makes good data and use it to help instruction. Sharratt and Fullan asked over 500 educators in four countries three direct questions. Why put faces on data? How do you put faces on data? What leadership qualities would be necessary to lead a system that did this well?

It’s easy to get frustrated in these times of data driven decision making. However, we need to take a closer look at the issue and why we find data frustrating, which Sharratt and Fullan do very well. Sharratt and Fullan begin with the 14 Parameters. These areas represent where schools need to improve their practices.

14 Parameters

  1. Shared beliefs and understandings
  2. Embedded Literacy/ Instructional Coaches
  3. Daily, Sustained Focus on Literacy Instruction
  4. Principal Leadership
  5. Early and Ongoing Intervention
  6. Case Management Approach (case by case meetings)
  7. Professional Learning at School Staff Meetings
  8. In-School Grades/ Subject Meetings
  9. Centralized Resources
  10. Commitment of District and School Budgets for Literacy Learning and Resources
  11. Action Research/Collaborative Inquiry
  12. Parental and Community Involvement
  13. Cross-Curricular Connections
  14. Shared Responsibility and Accountability

The Data Conversation
Sharratt and Fullan say, “Some educators are really good at breaking down the data, but most are not trained or experienced at chipping away the marble in their system reports-they haven’t been shown how to imagine there might be a “statue” in there.” This concept is really important because it does not make sense to have teachers and administrators collect data if they do not do anything with it. Data has to be more than pretty charts to show parents at conferences.

Data needs to be discussed at staff and curriculum meetings. Sharratt and Fullan offer the following suggestions when entering the data discussion:

  • Identify how best to meet the needs of all students
  • Develop a common language of instruction
  • Engage in collaborative marking of student work to make cross-school and cross-classroom assessments consistent
  • Establish consistent approaches to student assessment, behavior management, and pastoral care
  • Create new, specific strategies to meet the needs of diverse students (p.189)

In the End
Putting Faces on Data is not about the political argument of using data to hold teachers accountable. For a moment, when reading the book, educators need to walk away from that argument. The book is about creating a community of learners where all teachers feel responsible for the learning of all students, not just the ones who sit in their classroom. This is not specific to just a class, it has to be a shift in thinking for the whole school community.

As important as data may be, the conversations that teachers have about data is what is most important, which is why it is imperative that schools focus on the right kinds of data. If schools are going to focus on creating a better school atmosphere for all educators and students, they must also provide teachers high quality professional development and time to reflect on the data at hand.

The reality is that data is a part of our lives in education. The important issue is to find the correct data, help teachers and administrators learn from it, and use it to help students have a better school experience that will prepare them for their future. I encourage everyone to give Putting Faces on Data a read. There are numerous case studies and models included in the book that can help school leaders negotiate the process.

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On March 22nd Peter will be presenting at the National Association of Elementary School Principal (NAESP) Conference in Seattle and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Annual Conference in Philadelphia on March 24th.

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.