Saturday, January 13, 2018

Data-Driven Excitement! Yay!

Is there anything more exciting than being driven by data? The thrill of spreadsheets! The martial joy numbers regimented in rows! The deep-dish digitalization of all human exploration! I'm just getting all sweaty thinking about it.

Okay, not really. But there are people like this, and some even become teachers and some of those teachers decide to evangelize the gospel of data to their students. And then, lo and behold, they write articles about it. And that brings us to todays entry in the For the Love of God files.

The piece is "Exciting and Engaging Students around Data," by Molly Leger on the CenterPoint Education Solutions website, and it sits at the intersection of several reform factors.

CenterPoint is an educational consulting group, and its reformy bench is deep. CEO is Laura Slover, who spent 16 years with Achieve, including helping them launch the Common Core before she hopped over to PARCC, where she ran the outfit pushing one of the Big Standardized Tests for the Core. And look-- here's Tony Bennett, chief of state services for CenterPoint despite his scandal filled past as a charter-favoring book-cooker in Indiana schools-- behavior so egregious he had to resign his next job. Chairman of the board is Paul Pasternek, who did his best to dismantle and privatize education in Louisiana.

Ms. Leger is a fellow with TeachPlus, a group set up to be an alternative to teacher unions. It was founded and is led by a woman with ties o Mind Trust, a Midwestern reformster group. Leger is teaching in  Lawrence, MA, public schools and is in the middle of her second year in the classroom. She describes her work like this

• Accelerate student learning through the development and delivery of standards-aligned curricula for both an English and composition class
• Drive performance improvements and related systems by seeking out, gathering, and effectively using a wide variety of feedback

So that's where we are. Let's take as look at how she proposes to sow the datafied excitement.

Data is everywhere. As an adult, it weaves itself throughout my personal life and my professional career, and informs the thousands of decisions I make daily. I use data to decide what I eat, when I sleep, and which commute to take home. As a teacher, it drives my lesson plans, determines my performance evaluations, and offers insights on how to better my practice.

Oh boy. If by "data," she means "information I take in with my senses and brain," then okay. If you decide when to eat by responding to feelings of hunger, and you want to call that feeling of hunger "data," then we have no problem. I've long maintained that all teachers take in data a million times a day and use that to make their professional judgments-- we just don't frame that data as numbers and charts and spreadsheets. If you want to say that "following your gut" or "using your best judgment" is about internally processing a whole lot of observation and experience and insight and information, and you want to call that "data," then you and I are just having a difference of semantics. Also, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

But if you're consulting spreadsheet-style digitized data to help you decide when to eat and sleep, then I weep for the younger generation.

Yet, for all its importance in adult life, very rarely does the word “data” feature in our conversations with children. With so much to teach in so little time, we often neglect one of the most important life-skills: data-driven decision-making.

Again, our problem here may be that Ms. Leger is trying to stretch "data" to cover a broad range of ideas not usually included in the definition, like trying to spread a child's sleeping bag enough to cover the Grand Canyon.

On the other hand, if she seriously means to suggest that data-driven decision-masking is an important life skill, well.... no. When my babies cry at night, I don't consult the data o figure out what's happening or what I should do. When my older children were considering marriage, it did not occur to me to suggest that they consult the data. Number crunching, bean counting, and spreadsheet surfing are not useless skills, but they are not among the "most important life skills.

When I started to use the data from assessments in my conversations with kids, the tone of my classroom completely changed. Once students were excited about data, I no longer needed to offer prizes or pizza parties. Students were using data from assessment to make goals, monitor their progress, and demonstrate their achievement. They were more bought into assessments when they understood we would be using and celebrating that data in class.

I'm on record as being adamantly opposed to being jerks to young teachers. But Ms. Leger is working from a sample of 1.5 years here, and at the beginning of her career. She can barely have established a "tone" to be changed. And I blame her supervisers/mentors-- she should never, ever, have "needed" to offer prizes or pizza, and in fact we know that this sort of bribery is a bad idea. And for the rest, I have to ask.... what data? Because if she's talking about test scores and grades, then I suspect two things are happening here

1) She has rediscovered the power of harnessing students' desire for competitive grade grubbing

2) Her students appreciate explicit instructions on how exactly to game the system. Because data systems (like, say, PARCC tests) are invariably meant to be proxies for hard-to-measure elements, but are actually easy to manipulate numbers. EG the classic example of the company bonus for zero accidents. Since it's really measuring how many accident reports are turned in, you don't need to make the workplace safer-- just keep people from turning in accident reports. Tell students exactly what hoops they have to jump through to score points, and they will jump through those hoops-- and do nothing else.

But we've arrived at last at the six tricks to getting students all wired up about data! Here we go--

1) Never let assessment go un-discussed.

So, tell students why you're giving the test, go over the results with them, and let them know how the results will be used to design the work going forward. This strikes me as a basic teaching fundamental, known to millions of teachers. I'm not sure how exciting students find it.

2) For data to be helpful, it must be timely.

So don't turn work back weeks and weeks after it's been done. Again, I'm not sure that this is news to anybody (except, you know, test companies like the PARCC folks).

3) Use data to make and monitor class goals

Again, teaching 101. Ms. Leger wants to discuss this element with the students. Fine. Will it make them more excited?

4) Go visual.

Put up a progress poster! Yikes!! Data walls are problematic for so many reasons, and Ms. Leger makes matters worse by suggesting this technique for ELL and students with special needs. This is a lousy idea.

5) Use conferences to establish individual goals.

Ms. Leger suggests we do this during independent work time. She uses terms like "actionable goals." Yuck.

6) Celebrate progress.

"I frequently stop the class" she says, for "celebratory rituals around data-driven goal setting and achievement."


So this what I find curious about the piece. There is absolutely nothing new, not even new-ish, about any of the teaching behaviors she's suggesting. There are no new insights here about how to handle a classroom (and in the case of #4, at least one technique that is long since discredited). What's new is the attempt to take the business-style language of data-drivenness to it all.

Why? Why tack new language onto what is already known? Is it to create the illusion of change when no actual change or innovation is present? Is it another way to "disrupt" traditional public education, by disrupting the language we use to talk about what we do? Is it a method of co-opting old teaching insights by making them seem to line up with the new ways; are we trying to make data-driven decisions seem less like baloney by attaching them to old-school teaching methods?

Or this just what college teacher programs are up to these days? I recognize that it's old farty of me, but pieces like this awaken one of my great fears-- that a generation brought up with NCLB and RttT and BS Testing out the wazoo will emerge into the teaching profession with no real idea of what being a teacher used to mean. A younger generation that grew up swimming in Kool-Aid, so they don't even know it's toxic.

I don't mean to be a huge jerk to Ms. Leger. It's great that she's young and enthusiastic and time in the classroom has a way, after five or seven years, of knocking some of the foolishness out of you, but if you've got enthusiasm to withstand that, your career can be great. She may well turn out to be an awesome teacher with a great career. But the various reform groups sending her out to peddle this data-driven baloney in public know exactly what they're doing, and shame on them for using a young teacher to push their reformy baloney into the world.

Nobody needs to be excited about data-driven decision making. I'd rather we got excited about using our best judgment, paying attention, listening and looking and becoming better people so that we can make better choices. Being fully human in the world is complicated and complex and, on some days, just plain hard, and suggesting that we can gather up some data points, feed them into a decisionmaker (soon to be an AI software program near you) and the One Correct Decision will pop out, hiding the whole process in business-speak argle-bargle-- well, that's all bullshit. And taking the wheel and not even bothering to reinvent it, but just renaming it so that it appears to support our rickety vehicle-- well, that's just lazy.

The best decisions are not driven by data-- they are made by human beings, and that's worth modeling and discussing in our classrooms, excited or not.


  1. Two thoughts: One, I agree with your fear that students have known nothing else except the test and punish regime of education and will think its normal when they send their children to school. Two, unbelievable, my principal stated in a faculty meeting that we should be able to walk down the hall and any student we stop (at random) inquiring about their current Lexile score, the student should be able to tell us. Nope, not even close, children should not know or care about that data or we are doing numbers for numbers sake.

    1. Mr. Sampson: "Hey Sean, you got a second; I was just wondering if you know your current Lexile score."

      Sean: "Huh?"

      Mr. Sampson: "Your Lexile READING score."

      Sean: "Uh that, I'm not sure I think it was a 770L."

      Mr. Sampson: "Hey that's pretty good. By the way do you know what that number means?"

      Sean: (Shrugs his shoulders)"What it means? I don't know but Mrs. Smith told us to remember it just in case the principal asked."