Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Wrong Data

I have been a teacher in a public school for my entire 13 year teaching career. Over that time I have seen many changes on the education pendulum swing back and forth. One trend, although likely more than a trend, I see creeping or rather blitzkrieging into every aspect of our school in recent years is the use of data. To say schools have become obsessed with data may be an understatement. 

Now I'm not here to say I don't like data. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I believe data is a very valuable tool in schools just as in many aspects of life. As a self proclaimed runner, I am constantly pouring over data from my running. I collect distances, times, elevation and even weather conditions. I have two sons who swim and I often review the data of their times and how they are doing and progressing as swimmers. I realize this may indicate I need a new hobby. :) However, data is very much a part of my daily life and likely of many other people.  

In school it feels as though the most important data we collect is reading and math scores. Yes, I realize there are other data points gathered but these appear to be the headliners in the data driven show. Teachers are told they are good teachers or bad teachers largely based on this data. In some places teachers who don't even teach math or English are being told they have a stake in that reading and math data. Huge amounts of human and fiscal resources are invested in supporting reading and math intervention. Specialists are hired to work with our students who struggle in these two area. We even create additional classes for students to get additional help in reading and math. Often times these new classes come at the expense of an “special” or an enrichment class. When this happens students miss out on other learning opportunities they might excel at in an effort to receive additional support. All of these decisions are driven by the data being collected. 

Again, I'm not opposed to data or even using data to inform decisions. Yet, I wonder if the data we’re collecting and the data that is driving our decisions is the right data. If you walk the halls of many schools across our great country you will see issues and concerns beyond low reading or math scores. You will see students who are unhappy, lonely or sad. You will see students that are hungry, that are not well rested and generally unhealthy. You will also see students who are overweight, unkept or emotionally unstable. When I see these students I wonder about a different kind of data driving our work as educators. 

How are we collecting data on happiness? Are we collecting data on physical and mental health? What sort of decisions are being driven by students’ joy and wellness in our schools? Are we creating intervention plans or pulling resources to support mental health as well as physical health? Is it at the same level as it is with math and reading? How can we obsess over a child's reading scores when they're hungry or struggling with obesity? Why are we worried about whether they will master math standards when they are clearly not well either physically or emotionally? 

In reality, much if not most of the data we are collecting in schools will mean little when kids leave our buildings. Whether or not we got a student to a higher level of reading or a higher level of math computation will have less bearing on their life than if they leave us healthier both in mind and body. Why is it that English teachers are being forced to obsess over intervention plans and supports for struggling readers? Why aren’t the PE teachers and the health teachers or the counselor's creating comprehensive wellness plans, mental health plans, or happiness plans for children who struggle in these areas? Why are these plans not the focus of our conversations and data meetings? The data we use to drive our decisions ultimately reflects what we value and I wonder if our schools are beginning to value the wrong things or at least not valuing enough of the right things.