Student Well-Being Opinion

Another Brick in the (Data) Wall

By Nancy Flanagan — May 25, 2016 3 min read
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“To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.” (Abraham Maslow)

And to the man who has a computer, everything he encounters begins to look like data.

Michigan was an early adopter of statewide assessment tests--the dreaded MEAP, established in 1970, which in hindsight seems downright innocuous. Given three times in a student’s K-12 career, the MEAP served as a benchmarking tool. Schools where most students were scoring well carried on with whatever they were doing, and struggling districts--pretty much the same schools that have low scores today, surprise, surprise--were provided with technical assistance and extra resources from the state.

Reports were mailed to schools. Teachers and parents got very limited information--usually the percentage of students in each school that “passed” (read: achieved a satisfactory score). Occasionally, a school in my district would post a 100% pass rate on a single test, and we would all feel good about that.

Nobody thought the test was too hard or unreasonable; while administering a standardized test is never a great experience, there was a collective sense of doing our duty and being content with the results. Note: Individual student and class by class scores were not revealed. The unit of measurement was the school.

I remember clearly how that changed, when the district began receiving increasingly disaggregated data. I was at a school board meeting, because a teacher friend, who was going through a rough patch at home, had been denied the contractual option of taking a personal leave.

There was public discussion about whether a teacher who was seeking time off to heal from a rancorous divorce should be trusted with a classroom full of children. Then, a board member pulled out a sheet of numbers and announced that this teacher was the “weakest” in his grade level, and perhaps this was reason to go a step further, and terminate him. We shouldn’t be talking about emotional issues, the board member said, waving the paper--this is the information we need.

It was shocking, at the time, perhaps 20 years ago. The teachers (and parents) who had come to the board meeting to support the teacher knew that he often accepted, usually by parent request, the most challenging students--the ones with their own emotional issues and learning problems. He was a laid-back, sensitive, patient man, well-respected by his peers for his creative approach to teaching. His students’ test scores were more about the oddball kids he embraced than his own instructional capacity.

Or so we thought.

How our national love affair with manipulating data--a word I am always tempted to place in ironic quotes--has changed teaching and learning! To the point that Data Walls are now de rigueur in all the most up-to-date, competitive, standardized schools. So up-to-date, competitive, standardized thinking can be proudly displayed next to other trophies, plaques and banners.

We’re #1!

Jill Saia, a recognized veteran educator, accepted the challenge of leading a turnaround school in her beloved hometown, Baton Rouge. Per RTTT directives, she established a data wall, in the teachers’ lounge, then was nicked by state inspectors for not putting the wall in a prominent public place.

Think about that.

We used to believe, as public educators, that our product was our students--their eventual contribution as advanced scholars, civic-minded community members, and part of the labor force. All of that has changed. Our product now is publicly displayed test scores. Our data.

My question is why we have now put our faith in quantitative measurement, rather than our own observations, values, experience and judgment.

As a teacher, I collected lots of data on my students, inspired by reading Vivian Paley’s books. Paley spent decades amassing observations of children interacting and learning, through conversations, written work and recordings. The value of such information and sampling--the data--comes through careful analysis and reflection, on the part of the student, the teacher, the parents and the school community, however.

All student accomplishments are set in context. One child’s triumphant achievement is a meaningless exercise for another. And I’m willing to bet that the folks who came up with the idea of a data wall, then pushed for it to be standard operating procedure in a government initiative, were once bragging about their SAT scores, believing them to be evidence of merit.

There is nothing to be gained by displaying test results, and much to lose, beginning with a student’s unique personhood and identity--and right to privacy. Data walls are about comparing and winning, not teaching and learning. Or even--ironically-- good use of the most important data.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.