#26: Data

Awhile back, I wrote in a journal:

Sometimes I miss the days when Data was simply an innocuous android providing practical help aboard a future utopian starship rather than a justification for labeling, judging and marginalizing students in a one-size-fits-all system.  Come to think of it, perhaps Data never was all that innocuous in the first place.  Perhaps, if we consider a revisionist history (maybe A People’s History of the United Federation of Planets) of the Enterprise, we would see it less as exploration and more as exploitation.  We’d recognize that the clean, wealthy, utopian fantasy colonizing the galaxies in the name of “freedom” isn’t a bad metaphor of most of what passes as education reform.

I once wrote a slam poem during a staff meeting with the lines, “data whores pimped by tests and scores.”  I’m not a great slam poet, but it captured my feelings in the moment.  I hate Data.  I hate the calm, rational way that he runs the ship, pretending that we are the captains when in fact he has hijacked the ship and is leading into an imaginary race to the top – to wherever the Hell “no man has gone before,” colonizing a child’s mind in the name of freedom. A perverse Orwelian experiment.

*     *     *

I’m sitting at a computer staring at the spreadsheet, picking apart the data I see with a student.  It’s not data-driven, per se, but data-informed.  Yes, the tests are standardized.  Sure, they have a numerical value attached and if I so desire I can rank them with the click of a sort-function on Google Spreadsheets.  What happened? How did I move from an anti-colonial tirade to using standardized data in my own classroom?

I’m seeing the redemptive side to data.  If I’m using a standardized tool as a diagnostic tool, as a part, albeit a small part, of the larger holistic picture of my students then it’s worth it.  I care about my students.  It’s only the close of the second week and I feel a connection to them I have never felt before with a class.  I have no intention of judging and ranking and sorting.  Still,  I stare at the spreadsheet because I know I’m missing something.

The student scored high on AIMS and Galileo, but only on the questions regarding comprehension.  His fluency score is off the charts, but he makes many mistakes.  So, as crazy as this sounds, I offer him a nonsense word test and he fails.  I realize that he can access the higher-level thinking questions only when he hears them.  Although he is a great critical thinker, he struggles with some of the academic language. So, I ask him a few questions about academic language and he knows the word verbally but he cannot read them in print.

This boy struggles with phonics.  He’s memorized many site words, but now he’s running into words often associated with critical thinking and he cannot read them.  After some work with blending multisyllabic words, he is able to access the academic language. It’s true that I could have used qualitative measures the entire time, but the reality is that I wouldn’t have thought of it on my own.  I would have assumed incorrectly that the real issue had everything to do with critical thinking or academic language vocabulary and nothing to do with phonics.

Yes, Data can be pale, overly logical and often unhelpful, but I’m glad he’s joined my ship, because without his input I might have guessed the student was experienced as a critical thinker.  I’m realizing that the issue doesn’t have to be binary. I don’t have to be either a data-obsessed, textbook-conglomerate-loving, basal-reader-endorsing robot.  But I also don’t have to be a “let the kiddos spend the day in the sandbox and hope that they learn” teacher either.

I might be able to take a clue from my geeky childhood and recognize that the solution should be to try and humanize Data rather than turn my children into androids. Interact with Data honestly, openly and recognize the limitations. Allow Data to help inform decisions and offer a somewhat vague, logical picture.  Just don’t let him be the judge or the captain.

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