Sunday, October 5, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

For the past few weeks, our curriculum coordinator (a dear friend and all around wonderful, thoughtful person*) has been coming at me with data. She knows perfectly well that I find numbers repellant, so she tries to soften me up with lollipops and promises. She claims that by digging into the data about NECAPs and NWEAs we will be able to increase our test scores! She tells me this fully believing that I give a rat's ass about test scores. She also tells me that by looking at the data I will be able to give targeted instruction to my students to help them become better readers and writers -- now that's more like it.

Here's the thing, though - she wants me to focus on "bubble kids" or those students who were just a few points shy of scoring in the proficient range on the NWEAs. And, if you're looking at numbers, that makes a lot of sense, right? If I can focus my limited attention on kids who are nearly proficient, I can take our school from being in the AYP doghouse into the promised land, and we'll all be able to attend conferences with teachers from York and Kennebunk without bowing our heads in shame. Except, wait a minute, we aren't talking about numbers, not really. WE'RE TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN! Human beings with hopes and dreams and moms and dads and futures. Shouldn't my focus be on helping those kids who are furthest behind, the ones at greatest risk for dropping out and going to work in the coal mines?** Statistics may tell me that I will have the greatest impact school-wide if I focus on "bubble kids" but when I look into the big brown eyes of Natalia, who has a voice like an angel and the reading level of a third grader, I don't care that she scored a one instead of a two. All I see is a kid who needs my help.

Data has its place. Making big decisions about scheduling and curriculum design should always be based on data rather than our own (mis)conceptions about what's important and what's not. And, if the data can show me specifics about where my students have gaps in their learning, bring it on! But let's not forget that behind those numbers are real live people who deserve everything a public education can offer them.

* For real - she is one of the best people I know. We just don't happen to agree on this one issue, as you can probably tell.
**There are no actual coal mines in Saco, Maine.

1 comment:

  1. Finland is ranked third in the world in education, right up there with the likes of Korea and Singapore. Why? They focus on the whole society and whole child. They have invested very heavily in their schools and teachers who they refuse to overburden and stress out. They have universal high quality Pre-K. All schools are equally funded and staffed. Teaching is an exalted profession. They have universal healthcare, nutritious food in the schools, and a lot of recess time. Parents support education, and kids want to learn. Teachers are given time to meet for a few hours a week to share best practices and solve problems together. There are no extra duties, endless meetings, etc. etc. And guess what. There is only ONE standardized test at the end of high school. It is about very good teaching, equity, and caring for the whole child, not endless high-stakes testing and re-testing. We can't "fix" education just by foisting endlessly high "standards" on students and teachers. It is about cooperation, not competition. We have to look at the entire social fabric and all the underlying problems. In Finland, that is just what they have done. The culture is different. The society is different.