The Data Series: Part I
There are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens popularized that phrase. The phrase lives in direct opposition to the axiom “numbers don’t lie” and challenges those who use statistics to strengthen weak arguments. After all, that idea is reductive and fails to get at the ultimate truth that while numbers don’t lie, people do. According to a 2007 study by researchers Gina Schuyler Ikemoto and Julie A. Marsh, Data-Driven Decision Making (DDDM) is, “teachers, principals, and administrators systematically collecting and analyzing data to guide a range of decisions to help improve the success of students and schools.” In the classroom context, this is called Data-Driven Instruction, and while the definition is simple, it refers to a very nuanced practice. Although my perspective is that of a teacher, I watch the news and see how frustrating, alarming, and dangerous data can be. That is why I believe we, as citizens of a country, need to sit down and consider the role data plays in our day-to-day lives.
Data-Driven Instruction Almost Killed My Career
My first year of teaching was five years ago. I was given an English support class with no clearly-defined goals outside of it being the ‘fun class” and supportive of the English teacher’s work. I had a mentor through Teach for America (TFA), professors through Loyola Marymount University’s (LMU’s) credentialing program. I had a coach that visited my classroom through the district, and of course, I had my fellow teachers and my school administrators. Initially, I felt lucky to have several lifelines available to me. I felt that there was no way I could fail with all of these mentors. But, despite this, the data rolled in, and in many ways, I was failing. As a first-year teacher, I wasn’t sure how to process what I was doing wrong. My administration figured that I just needed to process my data and make adjustments. However, as a very new teacher, I wasn’t sure what data I should look at, much less being able to process it.
I was inundated with data, so I started looking at the positive information I’d received to see if there was a way I could leverage my strengths. For instance, there was a classroom poll given to my students. My TFA coach was proud to see that my students generally felt safe in my class; they felt as if I was fair, and most thought my class was reasonably challenging. My lesson plans were looked over by my LMU coach, and while I needed to increase the rigor of my course, she praised my lesson’s attention to detail. My mentor from the district mostly helped through informal observation; they always appreciated my attentiveness to their advice and willingness to learn. Reflecting on it made me wonder why my administrators rarely praised my work.
So, to reflect on my growth areas, I swallowed my pride, went to my boss, and asked what I needed to improve. It was frustrating to learn that the data that proved my incompetence was my state standards. I didn’t always have them on the board, and when I did, they did not always perfectly match the objective. I was skeptical that this was the major stumbling block toward my students’ development. The other feedback pieces were more palatable, like the fact that many of my students weren’t completing homework assignments. And, not 100% of my students were on task during one random informal observation. I had some excuses, like the fact that other teachers had low homework percentages, and the off-task students typically received SpEd accommodations. But, even I did not want to settle on falling back on my excuses. I had a job to do.
So, I tried to take all of the advice my mentors gave me and implement it all at once. But, by attempting to make everyone happy, I was making nobody happy. My administration saw my attempts to keep my classroom engaging (group seating, multimedia presentations, and using alternative ways to express answers) as unnecessary, unstructured, or unprofessional. My efforts to make my class more rigorous led to my students shutting down as the assignments were beyond their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). My frustration led to long nights, leading to a lack of sleep that further impaired my abilities as an educator. Impaired performance is a common side-effect of destructive criticism on competitive people; in the final part of this series, I will discuss this in more detail. After trying so many different techniques and being pulled in so many different directions, I realized that I needed to do what I thought was right. If I fail, well, at least I’ll have my integrity. I was ready to suffer the consequences, even if it meant my termination.
By the time my students took the assessment that was to make or break me, I’d given up. Not on them. But on caring. I dejectedly told them to do their best. I walked around to discourage cheating but did nothing to encourage them to use the resources I taught them. I did nothing to help boost their scores to save myself. I began to believe that maybe this school was just not my style. I believe the business world calls that fit. I knew that if my students failed to perform, I might be removed from the school. However, that began to feel like a healthier option.
I was ready, willing, and able to move on to a different school. And, since I was in good standing as a TFA Corps Member, if my administration removed me, the only consequence would be a new school placement. The prospect became exciting, as I knew there were schools out there that valued my teaching style. For instance, at my partner’s school, I would’ve been a rockstar teacher based on my data. I also had a roommate that taught a course similar to mine but came home with cute stories of how close he felt to his kids, how supportive his admin was, and how decently well his students were doing, considering that he was only in his first year of teaching. I had a vast teacher network. I knew that failure at this school would not be the end for me. As that was the case, I focused on my future. I was excited to potentially move to a school that saw worth in restorative justice, relationship-building, and community growth as well as academic performance.
I remember sitting in front of my classes one day and telling them how much of an honor it was to teach them. I remember allowing them to feel the weight of a teacher who felt like he failed them. They assured me that they would fight for me. I told them not to do that. I didn’t want to stay. At least, not if the people above me didn’t want me. But, seeing the righteous anger in my students’ eyes was heartening. This too was data. It was unquantifiable, but I would take it with me wherever I went. In my heart. Not on a piece of paper. I somehow made it through the rest of the year, but I had become jaded. And when the results of the assessment came back, I couldn’t even feel good when my students did well. My success made it harder for my school to justify getting rid of me. My administrators were now unable or unwilling to let me go; so, I was unable to leave.
The entire incident taught me that context matters. I sometimes wonder how my data stacked up against my fellow first-year teachers. I suspect, given my context, I was not nearly as inefficient as I felt. As difficult as that first year was, I learned a lesson: data can easily be misused, skewed, and misrepresented. Covid-19 cases are both spiking and falling; Black Lives Matter reporting is both influencing policy and sparking outrage. That is why it is so important that as we watch the news, learn, and grow, we investigate all of the information given to us. We must analyze data carefully and methodically. And we need to use that information to influence those making policy. It could be the difference between life or death.