Thursday, February 27, 2014

Workin' in the Data Mine

“Working in the data mine, goin’ down, down, down
Workin’ in the data mine, oop! About to slip down.”
Video Courtesy of Lee Dorsey
Parody courtesy of me

We’re workin’ in the data mine,
Goin’ down down down,
Workin’ for the data mine,
Oop! about to slip down.
Workin’ in the data mine
Goin’ down down down
Workin’ in the data mine
Oop! About to slip down

Six o’clock in the morning
Already up and gone
Lord, I’m so tired
How long can this go on? CHORUS

Cause I make a little money
Givin' tests by the ton
When Saturday rolls around
I'm too tired for havin' fun. CHORUS

For the first 35 years of teaching, I spent a good portion of my time and money in August, deciding on color schemes for my classroom, first month bulletin boards, and educational/motivational posters to put on the walls. After all, kids are going to spend 6.5 hours a day x 5 days a week in the room and I wanted them to feel welcomed and inspired.

Through the years, my classroom walls have been painted hospital green,  washed-out yellow or the palest of blue. All around the room above the blackboards was a foot-high space waiting for a splash of color and trim, waiting to highlight important vocabulary words in each subject and a number line, 180 numbers long. The blackboards on each wall were sandwiched between two bulletin boards that held good work, daily reminders, and calendars, schedules and rules.

Inside the room there were posters with inspirational quotes, exhortations to do your best, suggestions on how to get along with classmates, reminders about procedures for solving math problems, writing a narrative, informational or opinion essay, what-to-do-when-you-are-finished, creative art projects, book reviews, and any manner of  poster that would show off the intelligence, creativity and improvement of the students.

Outside the classroom door was a huge bulletin board that, in September, highlighted and welcomed individual members of your class. The rest of the year, it held, art work, poems, seasonal word games, data from experiments we performed, anything to celebrate what great things were happening in my class.

Everyone knew our data from Project Groundhog, as it was displayed along with pictures of our international team members and a map marking where our Project Groundhog team schools were located. The last bulletin board had 5 states and 1 Canadian province colored in and the cities were marked with a push-pin. The class across the hall was the 7th and 8th grade math class, who always posted a mathematical riddle or tough problem outside, encouraging kids of all ages to solve it. The 6th grade rooms posted beautiful poetry on their bulletin board, the science teacher always had a topical board and the social studies teacher always posted the 7th and 8th grade students’ projects in the hall, overflowing her bulletin board. When you walked through the halls, you could always tell what was going on in classrooms by the hallway boards. It was very welcoming.

About 2008, the school district began insisting on certain data to be displayed in the main hallway outside the office. Previous to this time, the hallway was adorned with paintings by Winslow Homer, trophies and ribbons from our championship chess team, and banners from the years our school made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). The art teacher, when we had one, used this hallway to highlight great work of our budding Picasso’s and Monet’s. The year 2008 brought increased emphasis on the data the school district required us to post publicly. Right outside the office, prominently displayed, were the results from the last standardized test, the PSSA. They were disaggregated to include multi-year results in reading, math and writing from each grade and room, along with attendance data. The two bulletin boards outside the office were occupied by attendance charts and the one thing we insisted be displayed, the “Good Citizens” list and photos from the lower grades. Inside the office, the test results had to be displayed and available in the form of a data binder that the principal kept in her office.

Gradually, the data creep began to affect the teachers when we were required to keep drawers of files for work collected from each student that would indicate progress or lack of.  We were also required to keep copies of essays written, along with the drafts and comments about writing conferences. When the powers-that-be came through the school for the infamous Walk-Through that year, they were not happy with the vocabulary walls and visual word walls for math, even though they required us to have them several years prior. We were now required to include the standards we were going to address for the week as well as the daily objectives for each subject, written in kid-language. So we concentrated on the standards and objectives, even though this consumed at least one of the available bulletin boards in the room.

The following years requirements ate into most of the creative work displayed in the class. Instead we hung up anonymous lists of reading levels, rubrics for every project assigned, and we went back to word walls. Every 6 weeks the kids took benchmark exams in reading, math and science and we had to examine the data, write a plan to improve and keep these in our bright red data books, which now seemed to be more important than lesson plans. During this time, the demands from the district began to clash with what we knew was good teaching. Despite that, we were forced to discontinue reading novels in reading, and instead were told to issue a short excerpt and questions in order to prepare for the PSSA tests. Along with these short excerpts were open-ended math problems graded according to rubrics, and writing samples with rubrics.

We were then asked to post samples of successful papers in the hall with comments attached to them indicating what made the paper a 3 or a 4 on the rubric. While kids were always happy to see their papers in the hallway, it was quite evident whose papers never made it into the hallway. Many of those kids, instead of being motivated to do better, just immediately gave up trying to get a proficient grade. We were expected to fill in posters on how many pages or chapters or books our kids read. That was most disturbing in the younger grades, as it became perfectly obvious which kids’ parents read with them at home and which parents didn’t. I was always embarrassed for the poor first grader or kindergartener who only had one or two stickers, while everyone else had 20.

But the most horrible thing for me was when the district said they didn’t want to see motivational posters in the room, only the ones related to testing and data. Every room was supposed to have the same things on their walls. Every hallway was supposed to have the same thing outside each class. Everything became standardized, along with the tests the students took.

But now, many school districts require you to post individualized data from tests you give, so students and parents will know where the students stand and supposedly to be motivated to make them do better. Or motivated to beat their kid for being last, or motivated to berate their learning disabled child into doing better, or perhaps  to question the teacher’s ability, fairness, or prejudices in assigning grades. This was supposed to make the kids desire to do better. It does no such thing. Neither the students nor their teacher can win this battle. And it’s just getting worse. The teachers and principals have to take back their schools form the standardized movement and be able to do what will raise the self-esteem and perseverance of the children. It is different with each child – that part is not standardized either.

Now, with the use of the Common Core computerized tests coming soon to a school district near you, all kinds of data will be available to all kinds of people. There is a real concern about what personal data will be mined from these test results along with the test-related public information the school reformers are hungry for.

Despite the increased use of data on the school walls, standardized test scores continue to stagnate or go lower.  The collection of data is not the solution, but how it is used is part of the problem.

We’re workin’ for the data mine,
Goin’ down down down,
Workin’ for the data mine,
Ooop! about to slip down...

For a view from someone who embraces data walls (not me), click here:

Still learning!

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