Anna Chao Pai (b. 1935)

I have a friend who always says, “Data is what you want it to be.”  Truer words have never been spoken, especially in the field of education.  When I first entered education, I was shocked, SHOCKED at the way data was compiled and used.  Since I entered Chicago’s public school system, I’ve fought back on the use of data to drive instruction.  I’ve repeatedly said that real statisticians would  simply laugh at the way schools use data.  We manipulate it to make it what we want it to be and make sweeping judgements about the state of our students’ learning based on these numbers.  And we only consider what we want to consider.

The funniest moment of my first year in education was in an all staff meeting about the progress of our TIA.  You see, in Chicago, Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs) create a school’s Targeted Instructional Area or TIA.  Our school’s focus was on peer-to-peer learning strategies, including group work, think/pair/shares, etc.  In a meeting, one of my administrators stood up and proceeded to flash the data for the last two years since they’d adopted this TIA.  Graduation rates had improved!  More freshmen and sophomores were on track!  Grades had improved!  Clearly this was the result of the TIA!  It was working!

After the meeting, my department members and I returned to our office and I exploded.  What the hell?  What an insane claim to make!  And with no proof!  My colleague started laughing, telling me how she knew during the presentation that I was going to be angry after.

You see the collection of any data has variables.  Those are the things that make those numbers go haywire.  In any experiment, you try to control the situation so that there are a limited number of variables.  You can’t do that in a school.  There are simply too many things that are beyond a school’s control: the number of students living in poverty, the number of students exposed to violence, the number of parents in a household, the number of involved parents in a household, the number of new, inexperienced teachers versus the number of veteran teachers instructing students, the schools that the incoming students came from, and the number of new, inexperienced teachers versus the number of veteran teachers instructing students at that school.  The list goes on and on.  Too many of those variables are not only beyond a school’s control, but also too hard to calculate and factor into the data.  It would take a large amount of surveying and collecting of data and figuring of data to be useful.  Instead, we rely on things like Census data and simpler school data (e.g. lunch form and ethnic make-up data) to make certain assumptions about our students.  The biggest of which is that we can use numbers to make assumptions about our students.

In my administrator’s presentation, not once did he factor in a single one of these variables into his line of thinking.  To him, the success of student’s was much, much simpler: the TIA had been implemented for two years, the numbers rose for two years and there was a direct correlation there.

Meanwhile, the classroom tells a different story.  I felt forced to do group work, which can be tedious and sometimes cumbersome in a 46-minute period of time.  I was teaching students who didn’t want to learn, which sometimes meant that group work was the blind leading the blind.  I felt my students would have learned better from direct instruction and creative interaction.  I had no time for that, though, when I was constantly being pushed to incorporate peer-to-peer strategies and teach to a test.  I would have argued that the peer-to-peer strategies, while important in certain instances, also detract from another important form of learning (and one which is very important in the college classroom): direct instruction.  Direct instruction gets a bad rep, but it’s how many of us learned and it’s how many of us learned best.  We learned from our teacher explaining.  We learned from our teachers teaching.  We did not learn from each other.  Or maybe we did, but not like we learned from a teacher.  I’m not opposed to group work.  I do it in my classroom often.  I was opposed to feeling pressured to do it every day and replace important direct instruction with peer-to-peer strategies.

So, what’s the lesson here?  I think we need to re-evaluate what data means in the classroom.  We need to use data as a way to inform our understanding of our students, but not necessarily to drive our instruction.  Data has its place, but it is not paramount to what I do in my room with my students.  And most of all, we need to understand that school data is not clean data.  When we use it, we’re making a lot of suppositions that, if incorrect, could seriously damage our students’ learning experience.  There are too many variables to hold these numbers as God.  As educators, we need to find our voice and speak up about what we know: students are not data and teachers are not creators of data.

(Photo via Smithsonian Institute on Flickr)

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