The term “data-driven” is one that keeps coming up in conversations on education continuously, and I will have to admit, the way I am hearing it being used often bothers me. The best teachers have always been data-driven, just not necessarily seeing students as numbers or as a set of scores. Too many correlate the word “data” to “numbers”, but there is so much more to any child’s story.
Numbers and grades are such a small part of the conversation when we are talking about our students, yet we often use that the argument that the “real world” still sorts people with numbers. When Thomas Friedman spoke to the person in charge of hiring for Google, “numbers” seemed to be a small part of the equation in their hiring practices:
Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams.
As a principal, I never looked at grades as an indicator for someone to become a successful teacher and a part of the decision making process in hiring someone. In fact, I have seen teachers with excellent grades in university struggle significantly because school worked for them, so change and flexibility could be a challenge in a system that needs to change. Grades are not always the narrative on whether a teacher is strong or not, but some of the best teachers that I have ever met really struggled in school, so they work hard to provide different learning opportunities for their students that are going through the same process. Would a teacher who struggled in school have more empathy for a student going through the same struggles?
So why are numbers so important to education? If I was to take a guess, it wouldn’t be because numbers are the most important, but that they are the easiest to collect. As humans, we tend to like to sort and rank to show accountability to our public, but through this process, we have seemed to be the least accountable to the people that matter the most; our students. Throwing a multiple choice test through a “scantron” to mark is a lot quicker than having a conversation with a student, but does not accurately assess their understanding of a topic, but more on their ability to do a multiple choice test on the subject.
For a few years now, we have been moving towards digital portfolios as providing a lot more of the “data” in our schools. They are more of a story and tell you a lot about what a child is understanding as well as their growth over time. Elisa Carlson recently shared a post on Surrey School’s initiative to really change assessment in their schools and provide a “window” into learning. Elisa explains why this is so important for education to move forward:
The district, as part of this CSL project, is undertaking this inquiry – Making Learning Visible – to explore whether digital documentation of student learning could become a new standard. Our teachers are at the front edge of transforming education through their practice. They are the champions. These teachers believe there is a better way to communicate student learning that aligns with our understanding and research. The district is taking steps to explore what is possible. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We are creating a new model, because, truly, now is the time.
Although portfolios are a great way to capture the story, there is and has been so much “data” being collected by teachers every day that is essential to the success of each one of our student’s. The best data is always obtained by starting with the question, “What is best for this child?” Every conversation in education needs to start with that question. But sometimes the data being collected by a teacher has nothing to do with “school” and everything to do with a child’s well being. Sometimes the worst thing we can do to a child is give them a test when their world is crumbling around them.
If we were “student-driven”, the number that we needed to collect for the sake of a score would not be primary over any student’s needs, yet our system has put many teachers in between a rock and a hard place. Should teachers, who go to school every day and care for so many kids, ever be put in a place where there students needs for growth become secondary to what our system says it needs?
I am not saying numbers don’t have a place in school and the work that we do. Again, they are a part, although a small part, of the story. There is so much more to our kids than a number and the data we collect everyday is essential to seeing our students become successful. I am reminded of this quote which puts into perspective why we teach:
“No school teacher has EVER had a former student return to say a standardized test changed his or her life.” Joe Martin
When our schools become so number-driven that we focus more on a grade than we do on the kids standing in front of us, we, and more importantly our kids, are in big trouble.