Data in Education — Measuring for the Sake of Measuring

My district seems to have gone data crazy here as we reach the end of the year. I am completely supportive of collecting data if it is meaningful and helps to inform instruction. Lately, however, some of the data (but more specifically, the way that I am being required to report it) has me feeling really confused about what the purpose of having all of this data is beyond being able to say, “We have data.”

I’ll give you an example. We have the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) system that we are using to benchmark where our students are at the end of year in reading. (My thoughts about F&P can go in another post — but just let me say that I do think we need to consider what being at a “P” means in the real world, other than being a boon to profits of books that have the letter “P” on them. It seems like a real cash cow for Heinemann…) Anyway, my understanding of the purpose of these assessments was that they are meant to inform placement for initial groupings for next year’s teachers. (Again, whether this test should be used for placement and if we should be advocating homogenous grouping is a question to be answered another day.)

Despite my questions and concerns about the use of this test, I have been trying to jump through the hoops because it is something that we have to do and there is clearly no fighting it. While doing the testing, it became increasingly frustrating to bump against the problems with the assessment — for example, the complete inattention to the impact of interest on reading ability (it is a real question of ethics when I know that a student could read a book at a much higher level because it is about her favorite animal) and the inability to declare that a child read a book proficiently if he/she did not make the “acceptable” numbers of self-corrections, even when the errors didn’t interfere with comprehension. Beyond the actual testing, even more parameters were in place to dictate how I have to report my data, including a mandate to not record how far past the “target” a student is. This requirement has really sent me into a tailspin and left me wondering what the purpose of collecting all this data is, since clearly it would be beneficial for the next teacher to know not just that a student is beyond the expected level, but how far past.

Needless to say, I think that the lack of communication with teachers about the purposes for having us take all of this class time (I had to miss two half days in my room!) to collect data is a real problem. I don’t understand why more teachers aren’t involved in the discussions that must take place at the higher levels of administration about how to measure student learning. It seems to be a growing issue in education that, all across the country, mandates to teachers are delivered in a top-down manner and that teachers perhaps aren’t consider “expert” enough to be able to make these important decisions.

I can easily think of other types of data that would be more useful to the next teacher and would not take any more time to collect, such as detailed observations and samples of student work. Unfortunately, in this era of education reform, it seems that only quantitative data is valued, as it is more able to be standardized in terms of collection methods. But, I fervently feel that in education — perhaps more than any other subject — it is qualitative data that will have the most profound impact on effectively informing instruction and thus, improving student achievement. Children and all of their complexities cannot be defined by numbers.

Are We “Creating Innovators?”

This week, I finished reading my first education book of the year — Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner. Previously, I had read The Global Achievement Gap and agreed with Wagner’s argument that it is, indeed, troubling how big the disconnect is between the things that students do in schools and what students will need to be able to do in the workplace. 

In this second work, Creating Innovators, Wagner profiles several young professionals in the various fields of innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as several universities (or small factions of universities) that are working hard to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world.

As a teacher, I found the book particularly interesting because I am highly interested in cultivating the abilities to ask questions and to practice critical thinking in my young students. I spend a great deal of time worrying what the outcomes for students are as we move toward increasingly scripted curricula, which, by its very nature, cannot often allow for meaningful, passion-driven differentiation or for connections to real-world problems of great significance for a particular group of students. These curricula also, all too often, fail to ask students to use their newly acquired knowledge and skills, but rather simply ask them to regurgitate the information at a very basic level.

Earlier this year, my students and I celebrated “Invention Day.” I put my second graders into groups of three and challenged them to come up with an invention. The first step in this process was for them to come up with at least 10 viable ideas for an invention. It was like I had asked them to explain quantum mechanics to me — many of these teams struggled to come up with more than three ideas and they all continually asked me if their ideas were “okay.” Through continued experiences like this one, my students are beginning to make some headway in terms of thinking creatively and being less concerned about whether their ideas are “okay.” Yet, I find it disturbing that in a group of children with such brilliant imaginations, there was a pervasive sense that their ideas had to meet some unmentioned parameter and that there was a nervousness about proposing an idea that wasn’t “perfect.” I think this says a lot about the way that schools can, sometimes unintentionally, pound curiosity and creativity out of students with mindless worksheets with only one “correct” answer and grading that often privileges playing it safe or keeping it simple over taking risks or thinking outside the box.

Have you read Creating Innovators? What did you think about it? What do you do in your own classroom to encourage creativity and critical thinking?

Thinking Beyond My Classroom in the New Year

Throughout the break, I’ve been seizing the opportunity to think about things other than my classroom and my students. This winter break is the longest amount of time that I’ve had away from school since the year began, and I’ve been surprised by how much I don’t miss it.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy working with my students, but, overall, I don’t think that I’ve felt as fulfilled by teaching as I thought that I would. I feel as though I’m doing a good thing, that I’m pushing back against the things imposed upon me to which I simply cannot blindly subscribe, and that my students are having a very different educational experience than they have in the past and than they may have in the future (though I hope I am wrong about that prediction.) I am by no means an outstanding teacher, yet, but I do feel as though what my students are getting in my classroom is meaningful for them as people, not just as students.

So, I am left with the nagging feeling that I’ve felt for some time now — that teaching alone does not seem to be enough for me. This is very difficult for me to come to terms with, as throughout my education, I have fought against those who told me that I ought to do something “more” than be a teacher. I believed that teaching would be enough. But, now I am thinking, that maybe in its current form, the structure of the role of a teacher is at best frustrating, and at worst, debilitating, to aspirations that teachers have beyond their classrooms. I watch the other teachers at my school pour their hearts into their classrooms, spending many, many hours creating lessons and activities. But, I do think that the need or desire to devote so much time to one classroom comes at the cost of shrinking the opportunities and time that teachers have to think about the broader picture of education and what they might be able to contribute to it. Thus, the relative absence of current teacher voices in educational academia.

So, as I prepare to dive back into teaching in the New Year, it is with the resolve to not only continue to provide my students with interesting and meaningful educational experiences, but to cling tightly and even increase, my grip on the wider world of education.

These are my ideas for doing that, so far.

  1. Write about my teaching and practice not only here, but in places where teachers’ voices ought to be heard.
  2. Read, read, read. I plan to do a better job keeping up with the latest research in scholarly education publications and to read the many, many education books I’ve collected and lacked the time to read this year.
  3. I’ll also be taking on a second blogging project, with one of my professors from graduate school. I’ll be blogging about using children’s trade books in the classroom. (I’ll post a link when the website gets up and running).
  4. Look for ideas and solutions to my classroom challenges not only from my colleagues, but from the wider world of education.
  5. Continue to listen to the persistent, nagging feeling to determine where I ought to go from here.

Fellow teachers, what do you do to maintain your connection to the world of education beyond your classroom?

Welcome to My Blog!

Meet “Q,” my classroom mascot.

Welcome to cultivatingquestioners.com! I am a first-year educator about to begin teaching second grade in rural Maine.

I’ve decided to keep this blog as a way to keep my critical lenses active as I move away from the realm of being a student to being the individual facilitating instruction in the classroom. In this blog, I hope to post weekly reflections on my own practice, my experiences implementing curriculum with my students, my thoughts about developments in education, and tips and tricks for educators also trying to break through the status quo in classroom practice. Through an assortment of different types of posts, I hope to engage in a dialogue about all aspects of the field of education.

The image accompanying this post is of “Q,” my classroom mascot. I plan to call my students “The Curious Questioners” this year, in hopes of encouraging them to keep asking questions, as I believe it is learning to interrogate that will aid my students in becoming critical thinkers and lifelong learners. Similarly, “Q” is also designed to embody this value in a tangible way. He will be posted on my classroom door and students, parents, and other visitors will see him every time they walk in the door. I hope that these simple, yet intentional practices will help remind my second graders to channel their natural curiosity into questions for their peers to explore.

With my very first “first day of school” less than three weeks away, I am working hard on developing curriculum and on setting up my classroom. Stay tuned for future posts that will feature a tour my classroom and an introduction to my September unit of study: Biographies and You!