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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

Why We Need to Talk About Evidence

By Peter DeWitt — January 10, 2016 4 min read
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Data has been seen as a “4 letter word” for quite some time now. Mostly because it hasn’t been used properly during times of accountability, but other times it’s due to the idea that people don’t believe the data that is presented to them. After data is presented, the stories about the child usually comes out.

“He didn’t get enough sleep.”
“She doesn’t pay attention.”
“I had their dad in my class when he was a kid and he did the same thing.”
“They always struggle.”

It’s not that those reasons aren’t valid, because they are in most cases. Believe me, I taught for 11 years in a couple of city schools and every single student walked in with their own story, some of which still make me shudder. However, although students come from struggling backgrounds (I did too) doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to grow as learners and students.

If they aren’t making at least a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input (Hattie), what are they doing?

When it comes to data, I wasn’t always on board. Data can sometimes be used to portray a story differently than it may be in reality, but my mind was changed after reading Using Data To Focus Instructional Improvement by James-Ward, Fisher, Frey and Lapp. In the book, James-Ward et al write, “Starting with the assumption that opportunities for improvement always exist, we must purposefully seek out errors, understand their causes and effects, and then fix them for continuous improvement to occur.”

This is where evidence comes in...

As a school principal I was in the building role when NY State required observations to be based in evidence. I wasn’t agreeable with all of the changes happening at the time in my home state, but evidence-based observations were something I really enjoyed.

Yes, I enjoyed observations. I enjoyed learning from the teachers I was fortunate enough to work with every day.

If you ask most teachers, they will tell you that observations are something to get through rather than learn from. That’s unfortunate because the role between the teacher and school leader should be more collaborative. Going through the observation process should mean something to both parties. The lives of principals and teachers are so busy, and sometimes distracted by things that don’t matter (Hattie) that the observation process should be one of the places that should offer collaborative moments for the leader and teacher.

At it’s best, an observation should require teachers to meet with their school leader and define a common goal. Perhaps that goal is co-constructed between both parties or perhaps the teacher is solely responsible for coming up with their own goal. The reason why this is important is because it provides the leader with something to look for when they enter into an observation, and we know that feedback matters most when it’s focused on a goal, and not just given randomly.

When the leader and teacher meet up for the post-observation, they should both bring evidence to the meeting. The teacher should be able to explain their impact on student learning. Some people do have an issue with that statement, but in the words of Russ Quaglia (Student Voice), teaching shouldn’t be about accountability but it should be about responsibility. We are responsible for “moving the dial” for the learners in front of us.

The problem is that over the years data and evidence has been used solely to talk about test scores, and we all know there is a lot more to learning than test scores. Evidence can be used to define areas of learning, that Jim Knight, Carol Dweck, John Hattie, Russ Quaglia and many others have researched, such as:

  • Teacher talk vs. student talk
  • Growth mindset statements vs. fixed mindset statements
  • Negative interactions vs. positive interactions
  • Cooperative learning vs. cooperative seating
  • Surface level vs. deep-level questioning

That doesn’t have to lead to combative relationships between leaders and teachers does it?

In the End
The other day I was on Twitter and some teachers were talking back and forth about their principals asking for data for their subject-areas. They were remarking somewhat sarcastically about how data and evidence aren’t always applicable for their areas. I disagree with that. We should always have to show the impact we are having. And yes, as a consultant I have to prove my impact to both the schools I’m working with as well as the organization hiring me to do the work.

I get that this may be a hard sell, especially for the teachers talking about the evidence in their school. Unfortunately too many principals use top-down methods to “take” data from their teachers, and teachers are put in the position of “proving” they are doing their job. That’s not collaborative.

These discussions should be more about the leader and teacher learning from one another, and less about top-down accountability. Together they need to figure out how to help students improve as learners. Sometimes that means they need to change the environment of the child rather than change the child. It also means that the leader had to do a lot of proactive work to create a safe and inclusive environment where these conversations can take place.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of McLac2000.

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.