Data. It’s a four letter word. Especially in education.
It has been argued by many to play a pivotal role in increasing student growth. The four key PLC questions from DuFour are centered around it. Even Danielson includes it as part of Domains, 1, 3 & 4 of the teacher evaluation rubric.
And yet, when many educators hear that it’s time for a data review meeting they either cringe, cry, or circle up their friends to plan out who’s bringing what treats to get through the agonizing process.
So what’s wrong with data? Specifically, what’s wrong with data review and why does it get such a bad rap? More importantly, what can we do about it?
Problem #1 We Don’t Engage All Stakeholders
When I was a teacher I remember being invited to countless data review meetings where the reading specialists would project graphs of student growth (or lack of) using something called AIMSWEB. We would painstakingly go through each student with the specialists all sharing their insights. Periodically I would be asked for feedback on my students, but in the end the decision would be made to change some sort of intervention that I was not involved in by the other “experts” in the room.
I sincerely hated those meetings. I became an expert head nodder at those meetings. Most of the time I was dreaming about what I would eat for, let’s be honest, any meal, or thinking about which member I would take from my favorite boy bands to form the greatest band of all time. (This is way trickier than you think. You need at least one bad boy which means you can’t just take ALL the cute ones.)
From start to finish, each stakeholder, from educator to specialist needs to be both an active creator and participant in the process and beyond. The reason why data review has gotten such a bad name is that many educators, like myself, have experienced it as something being done to them as opposed to the collaborative process that it should be. No one ever explained to me WHY we were having these meetings or what the expected outcomes were. No one ever asked me what data I thought would be meaningful to look at or even to bring data with me. I was simply told I had a substitute and was to show up to these monthly data meetings. They were supposed to be these all important events, but I usually left them wanting two hours of my life back and needing a coffee.
Problem #2 We Never Get Anywhere
When I was an instructional coach one of the big parts of my role was Data Coach. I ran data review meetings, helped teachers to look at formative classroom data, and facilitated discussions in PLC’s. DATA was a four-letter word regularly used in my vocabulary. And (gulp), I liked it.
“Here’s What, So What, Now What” was my jam. We used it to evaluate everything from exit slips to Fountas & Pinnell assessments to reading responses and everything in between. The feedback that I got was positive from the teachers I worked with. It was a well-organized way to present the data (Here’s What), talk about causes (So What) and then come up with a plan of what we were going to do about it (Now What).
Unfortunately, as I have been reflecting upon this protocol in preparation for some data review with my current staff I have come to realize that there are some serious flaws in the way we used this protocol.
Wait, what? Did I just say the mack daddy of data protocols is all wrong?
Yep. I did.
Here’s why. I’m a control freak. And I broke it.
Yep. I’m a control freak. Ok, recovering control freak. Back in the hard core CF days I thought we needed a list of guiding questions, as well as categories of students, to look at when talking about data. I needed a predictable structure that would get us from point A to point B to point C each time. I mean how would teachers know what to talk about if I (God of Data) didn’t guide them step by step each time through the process?
Recovering CF me realizes how incredibly idiotic this was for two reasons:
- See Problem #1
- There are so many questions and levels of students to talk about that we rarely made it to the Now What (THE MOST IMPORTANT PART) in a 45 minute PLC time and would have to continue to the next meeting
Although we had some GREAT conversations about students using this protocol I have to imagine that my staff walked away feeling frustrated when we had to wait a week to get to the action plan or meet at another time after school to finish it. Without action, data review is just a pretty little template with some glorious notes about our thoughts, but no real impact on student learning.
Here’s What, So What, Now What is still a great protocol, it just needs to be simplified. Don’t try to look at all the subgroups at one time. Select the group that is most meaningful for your team to talk about and only use it for that group. Select a few questions to focus on during your conversation. Doing “All the Things” is not productive when discussing data.
Problem #3 Meaningless Data
Problem number three could be argued to be a large part of number one.
Many times we are asked to analyze data that is not very meaningful because the data has gone well past its expiration date. Standardized tests like PARCC or IAR or whatever it’s being called this year are thought to be important data to analyze because often our school success is judged by this benchmark. However, when it comes six months into the following year it’s hard to find any correlation between the results and current teaching practices. The kids have grown. Our teaching has changed. Nothing is the same. It’s hard to have buy-in to discuss something that is related to something so far in the past.
Another way that data can be meaningless is when it doesn’t match our strategic outcomes for students. If we are saying that as a school we are trying to foster collaboration, creativity, communication and any of the other six C’s, then it is difficult to make the argument that we should spend hours analyzing a multiple choice test or any other form of assessment that doesn’t show evidence of those indicators. If data is going to be meaningful for analysis it has to match with our intended outcomes.
Other times it really does go back to Problem #1. If we don’t explain the why or ask for the feedback of everyone involved in selecting data to analyze then there ultimately will be little impact on students. We have to move beyond the idea that data review has to involve fancy charts, graphs or percentages. Coming from a business background, I love me a big fancy spreadsheet with a pie chart or bar graph involved, but if we never move beyond simply looking at numbers data review is going to continue to lack meaning for many.
My So What
In order to combat the full fledged groans that usually commence at the mention of the word data we have to simplify the process. Let’s stop making it this mystical thing that requires elaborate templates and official numbers. The whole point of looking at data is to cause growth in students. The best way to do this is to select meaningful evidence that will help us to make instructional decisions that we can act on.
That being said, I don’t have all the answers (yet), but here’s where I’m currently at:
- Select a facilitator. Have this person engage all stakeholders prior to the meeting about an area they see a need to talk about.
- Decide on some evidence (data) that would demonstrate this need. (exit slip, writing sample, conferring notes etc.)
- Decide on how you will be assessing the data prior to the meeting as a team and come to the meeting with it already “graded.” (Note: This is not extra work. This is simply assessing something you would already authentically be doing or have done.)
- At the meeting answer the following questions:
- What does this evidence tell us about our students? What did they do well? What did they struggle with?
- How could we build on their strengths to create success?
- What action steps do we need to take so that each student will grow?
- What questions do we still have?
- Create a plan of action with a follow-up date included.
Albert Einstein allegedly once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” To me this means that we need to simplify the process, but not the thinking involved in looking at student data. It is my hope that through several iterations and feedback from my team we are able to further refine these processes and get to the heart of what will move all students forward.