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.

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Standing Up and Speaking Out

An interesting thing happened at school this week. The agenda/items for our staff meeting were sent out, as always, ahead of the meeting. As sometimes happens, there was an item on the agenda with which I did not agree, so I began my newly-adopted practice of cleverly thinking out arguments that would show my dissent, but in such a logical manner that it wouldn’t seem like blunt disapproval. This usually wouldn’t be the practice that I would adopt, but as a new teacher I have been making a concerted issue to keep my head down whenever possible, as I’m still trying to learn the “rules” of the culture — and, on some level, hoping to keep my job for next year.

I’ve taken the opportunity to speak up once about something that left a completely sour taste in my mouth, and it didn’t go that well for me — I felt pretty ostracized in my “radical” view by most of the staff. But, this week, something changed. A teacher responded to the email containing the agenda item and stated her dissent. Suddenly, I was in a position to be able to second her ideas, which I eagerly did. And, since then, wouldn’t you know it, at least three people at my small school have thanked me for saying what I did and told me how much they agreed with the sentiment.

Initially, this made me feel fantastic — it turns out that resisting this idea wouldn’t actually be as big of an uphill battle as I had thought. At least for this particular issue. But then, it got me thinking: On how many issues have people have opinions they were afraid to share? Is there a whole group teachers at my school who are just going along to get along? I know from readings in my Teacher Leadership course that there are many teachers who, for a wide variety of reasons, do feel that going along is the safest strategy, but I guess I hadn’t imagined that could also be true in such a small school. What does it say that in such a small staff, there seems to be anxiety about voicing an opinion of disagreement?

So, it leaves me in an interesting position. On the one hand, I feel invigorated by finding support where I was nervous I wouldn’t find it. But, on the other hand, I’m left thinking this was a relatively mundane issue and that sticking to my strategy of keeping my head down except for when something egregiously violates one of my “non-negotiables” — issues where I absolutely must say something, regardless of the cost — might still be the best course of action for a new teacher. But, then, if I let something pass without voicing my opinion, I fear that I myself fall into the category of “going along to get along.” And playing it safe is not something that is going to help propel my students’ learning forward. All in all, this episode has, once again, left me feeling amazed at how deeply politics insert themselves into every level of education.

On a less serious note, I am participating in another giveaway to try to get some exposure for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Here’s some information about that — there are some great products that you could win! You can check it out here: http://growingin1st.blogspot.com/2014/01/200-tpt-followers-giveaway-enter-to-win.html

Teacher Evaluation and Licensure – What Are We Really Assessing?

As a new teacher, I am on a “provisional certification,” which means that my teacher license is good for only two years. During those two years, I am supposed to document evidence of my growth in Maine’s 10 Teacher Certification Standards (http://www.maine.gov/education/aarbec/tenstandards.html) in order to show that I have met the criteria for professional certification. Because this process is one of the few guided and supervised opportunities that I will have to create a formal plan and goals for improving my practice, I was eagerly looking forward to laying out an ambitious and challenging agenda for myself to follow over the course of the next two years.

During a teacher leadership course that I took last year during my Master’s year, I had heard a lot of negative things about teacher evaluation — particularly how it often fails to adequately measure what makes for successful teaching practice and it’s tendency to indicate that almost all teachers demonstrate effective practice. Despite what I learned in this course, I tried to go optimistically into my professional certification action plan (PCAP) approval meeting this past Tuesday.

I had spent hours laying out three very ambitious goals with 5-8 meaningful action steps apiece. I based this loosely on the template with which my district had provided me. My three goals were to design multiple and rigorous thematic units based on my district’s measurement topics, foster transparent and effective teacher-parent relationships, and to facilitate the growth of self-directed learners. I met with my mentor teacher to discuss my goals prior to the meeting and she thought that my goals and action-steps were thorough and challenging, though perhaps a bit more ambitious than they really need to be. I took this to mean that I could certainly submit my goals as is and assumed that my extra effort would be appreciated.

I could not have been more wrong. When I arrived on Tuesday with my mentor, I was forced to select just two goals and to keep my formatting exactly as their template suggests. I was also required to parse down my action steps — not for my own sanity or to make sure I more adequately focus on these steps — but so that the committee does not have to review products for more than 7 steps total over my two years. Finally, I had to update my “due dates” not to reflect times when I will fit completing these objectives into my own schedule, but for one of two times during the two years when the committee will be reviewing my materials. As such, the focus of my goal sheet seemed to shift from creating a rigorous and personally-meaningful path to follow over my first two years in the classroom to a practice designed to make my professional approval run as smoothly and simply as possible for the committee. While I can understand that it does take time and effort to process the plans of 10+ new teachers, I am disappointed that this effort doesn’t seem to be deemed important enough to pursue. What could be more important than ensuring that only truly qualified and motivated teachers are permitted to continue working in the classroom?

As written, my new plan seems both hollow and shallow. In fact, I could probably hand in most of the pieces of required “measurable evidence” that I am supposed to need two years to finish by the end of the month. It is now becoming more clear to me how easy it would be for an ineffective teachers to continue on in the classroom — at this point, so long as I don’t treat my students egregiously and do just an average job in the classroom, I could easily coast my way to professional certification. It doesn’t seem like it should be that easy to become licensed to do one of the most, if not the most, important jobs in any society. I am disheartened that it seems that I’ll be the only one pushing myself to become the best educator that I can possibly be.