Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 11:55 AM ET, 11/13/2010

Teacher: Data, my new dirty word

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Maja Wilson, who taught high school English, adult basic education, ESL, and alternative middle and high school in Michigan’s public schools for 10 years. She is currently a teacher educator at the University of Maine while finishing her doctorate in composition studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Heinemann, 2006).

By Maja Wilson
I would like to create my own language. I did actually, when I was 10, during my hour-long bus rides to and from school with Sarah. We created elaborate code books for translating the cryptic notes we sent flying back and forth over rows of green, vinyl bus seats.

You had to be in the know, to know what we were writing. And Lorraine couldn’t ever know. We were writing about her most of the time, how she’d pushed me on the soccer field, or how she’d slapped Sarah at the foot of the slide. So, in an act of semantic warfare, Lorraine slipped her own Top Secret! code book to Heather and Nicole and all the girls with long hair and soap opera names who would always be cooler than thou.

I no longer ride the school bus, but I still spend my days in classrooms, where I’ve worked as a teacher for almost 13 years. If I were to create my own language now, “data” would be my all-purpose curse word. It has all the characteristics of a good swear: four letters, the central harshness of the letter “t,” the power to condemn.

Of course, I wouldn’t be inventing the word myself, but would be stealing it from the 21st century educational codebook. When I started teaching in 1998, “data” was not part of the classroom teacher’s lexicon. But when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, it became a key term in the rhetoric that would both dominate and define an entire era of educational history.

Now, teaching itself has become redefined as generating, collecting, and using data, and learning has become redefined as the curve connecting data points. This is a fundamental
shift in how educators think, talk, and go about educating our children. Unfortunately, it is not a shift that serves anyone but the data-collectors very well.

To illustrate what this redefinition of teaching and learning looks like in practice and why we should be disturbed, let’s take a run-of-the-mill classroom situation—one of a hundred a teacher might confront on a given day. We’ll play it out first in the increasingly common data-driven classroom and then in the classroom governed by professional observation and judgment. Here’s the scenario: Sam, our hypothetical sixth grader, is trying to divide decimals. He gets six of ten decimal problems wrong.

The data-driven teacher in a data-driven school brings her class’ scores on this decimal assessment to her Professional Learning Community (PLC), which consists of all the school’s sixth grade teachers. (Incidentally, “learning” and “community” are not terms in the 21st Century rhetoric of data, but are used strategically to lull data-leery teachers into submission.)

The teacher whose class has the highest average on the decimal assessment shares her lessons on dividing decimals with the members of the PLC. All sixth grade teachers implement those lessons, and the worksheet is given again the following week.

To make sure PLC members take their work seriously, a Data Board is posted in the teachers’ lounge: teachers’ names are listed with their students’ scores in line or bar graph form underneath. Despite the re-teaching and re-assessment, Sam’s chart is still distressingly low.

Anxious about how her curve compares to the teacher’s next door, each math teacher implements daily timed decimal dividing drills, called Mad Minutes! right after the morning’s Pledge of Allegiance. Children who don’t pass the morning’s Mad Minutes! are kept in from lunch recess to practice decimals lest they be left behind. (Apparently, it is acceptable to be “kept in” but not “left behind.”)

Now, if the PLC and the Data Board don’t lead to continually improving scores on state math assessments, the school is labeled a School In Need of Improvement, and a range of corrective measures are taken, including (but not limited to): additional training for teachers in standardized testing procedures; increased standardization of math curriculum; and increased common math assessments which generate more data points for the Data Board, which has now displaced the “Reach for the Stars” poster that had been hot-glue-gunned to the cinder block wall since 1987.

Now, we must ask: Where is Sam in all of this, besides pinned to the bottom of the Data Board in perpetual anxiety? It is hard to say. No one has bothered to talk to Sam, since everyone has been so busy creating, administering, scoring, posting, and comparing all the new decimal assessments.

However—and here’s what matters to consultants, politicians, and the media—there is the appearance of progress, of a school system really taking education and continuous improvement seriously. At least something systematic and data-driven is being done! What dedicated and collaborative teachers!

Now, let’s consider Sam in a classroom where the teacher doesn’t play the data game. Her observations aren’t formed through the use of standardized tools, but she has spent years studying teaching, math, and children, and she’s met students like Sam before. She’s going to be working through dynamics that are difficult to quantify. But that’s okay, because she isn’t going to try to quantify them. Instead, she’s going to thoughtfully observe, examine, and interpret what she sees. Then she’ll figure out what to do.

Our observant teacher has already noticed that the normally gregarious Sam freezes up in class any time he’s asked to solve a math problem. She sees that when he begins his problems, he becomes quite anxious, scratching deep grooves into his desktop with his pencil instead of showing his work on the page. When she asks him to talk through his thinking, he can’t formulate an entire sentence without his voice shaking in frustration.

She wonders why he is so anxious. When she asks him how he feels about math, he says he’s awful at it and talks about last year’s math teacher, who used to yell at him when he got questions wrong. He is angry and embarrassed about how he always had to stay indoors during lunch recess because he could never finish his Mad Minutes!.

Anxiety-induced math withdrawal, the teacher knows, is more dangerous in the long run than a student who works a bit more slowly and methodically than the rest of the class. She decides that the last thing that Sam needs is the anxiety that trickles down from Data Boards, Mad Minutes!, and more frequent assessments. She encourages Sam to slow down; there will be no stopwatches in her classroom. She cuts his daily problems in half and arranges for him talk through each problem to his seatmate. She will keep an eye on him, and once she sees that he can do these few problems without freezing up, she’ll add problems back to his daily work.

She introduces Sam to a second grader down the hall who is having trouble with addition. He spends some time each day helping the second grader talk through his work, and he starts to feel like maybe he does know something about math. By the end of the year, he isn’t dividing decimals quite “on grade level” yet, but he isn’t afraid to work hard with numbers anymore.

Now, is it possible that, in a different classroom, the teacher will observe Sam carelessly, or worse, with prejudice? Yes. But let’s not pretend that carelessness and prejudice don’t exist in equal amounts in data-driven classrooms. And let’s not pretend that Sam is always (or even often!) given what he needs in data-driven classrooms as a result of the teacher’s focus on data.

But wait, can’t teachers’ observations, interpretations, and knowledge of Sam co-exist with the focus on data? Many teachers are heroically trying to preserve a balance. But they can’t co-exist in the long run. Both approaches are not only time consuming, but they require completely different and ultimately antithetical mindsets: The first is based in a distrust and dismissal of the teacher’s subjectivity and experience, and the latter based in an acknowledgment and development of it.

To pursue the first approach wholeheartedly, in other words, a teacher needs to abandon the second.

A new teacher in the data-driven system will spend so much time being trained to administer the assessments that she’ won’t have time or guidance to develop the observational, descriptive, and interpretive skills that our second teacher has worked so hard at. And these skills do require hard work and mentoring. Unfortunately, mentors who value and develop their professional judgment are being pushed out of the profession, and any time for this mentoring to take place outside the classroom is being sucked up by the focus on data in PLC’s.

I don’t expect that, anytime soon, educators will be piously reprimanding consultants and politicians who accidentally let the word “data” slip in polite company.

In the meantime, I’ll amuse myself during in-services and accreditation meetings by imagining that these consultants—modern day versions of Lorraine with their talk about data-driven instruction and what’s the data telling us and becoming consumers and producers of data—actually suffer from an uncontrollable—Data!—urge to—Data!—curse.


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | November 13, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning, Teachers  | Tags:  data, education, educational data, mad math minutes, mad minutes, nclb, no child left behind, school reform, schools, teachers, teaching and learning, test data  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: So you want to be a professor? A laugh/cry video
Next: Be careful of 'snap apps' in college admissions


This is a very interesting article discussing the human element in teaching. I noticed that the author is working on her doctorate. She seems to be ignoring the huge basket of reports by folks that repute to show that advanced degrees and experience do not enhance teacher effectiveness. I sometimes wonder what planet such folks are from. Naturally, they do not enhance effectiveness that is measured as specific data points. In my view someday all that sort of stuff will be taught by computer or android anyway. What "effective" human teachers do, mostly by example, is teach other humans how to approach life and specific problems of life in a human way, and the probability of ever developing a computer or android that can accomplish this task is essentially zero. With this in mind then, I would say knowledge of subject, years of experience, advanced degrees, foreign travel, tragedy, joy, failure, success, love, humor, etc are typical imperative experiences of any great teacher. The fact that we have some huge group of supposedly educated people attempting to determine how many math and reading data points will fit on the head of a pin, and at the same time proposing that human education and experience are not important for effective teaching is almost beyond belief.

Posted by: bpeterson1931 | November 13, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

bpeterson1931. The author is trying to show how this obsession with data takes away from good teaching. Kids have become numbers and the bottom line is now all that matters....but is the assessment even valid. NO. Its not. Kids hate school more than ever, teachers are stressed out and expected to do much more than can humnaly be possible. From your response it's obvious you are not a teacher.

Too bad parents do not advocate for thier own kids. They too do not question the data frenzy and do not see how this is hurting education.

Posted by: miriamsart | November 13, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

"But wait, can’t teachers’ observations, interpretations, and knowledge of Sam co-exist with the focus on data? Many teachers are heroically trying to preserve a balance. But they can’t co-exist in the long run. Both approaches are not only time consuming, but they require completely different and ultimately antithetical mindsets: The first is based in a distrust and dismissal of the teacher’s subjectivity and experience, and the latter based in an acknowledgment and development of it."

The whole piece is great, but this particular statement resonates most with me. I tried to do both-- go along with the Data regime *and* construct a meaningful, human learning environment for my students. At one point, I literally collapsed from exhaustion (now THAT'S a productive way for kids to start their morning: watching their teacher be wheeled out of the building on a stretcher!), and I ultimately burned out after two years. It really isn't possible to do both, and that fact pushes some of our most dedicated, thoughtful, and effective teachers out of the classroom.

Posted by: TeacherSabrina | November 13, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

Points are sensible....until one surmises that this piece is just one more entitled plea to cease cooperation with teacher evals, kid testing, etc. No data, no ratings, then, voila, secure jobs and secure pay.

Parents will tend to want to find the right balance of "data" -- but not let teachers off the hook for some accomplishment and progress that can be measured.

This idea actually can be attributed to David DHume1, a professor of some note who drives a Volvo S60.

Posted by: axolotl | November 13, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

axolotl: If the points in the essay are sensible, then maybe "teacher evals" based on the "data" generated by "kid testing" and "ratings" aren't such a good idea. It seems that you've decided that "kid testing" and "teacher evals" are the desired outcomes, and you will disregard any "sensible points" that would prove their insensibility.

Posted by: teacher19 | November 13, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

This article reminds me of the anguished, tortured statement a middle school, Latina student I taught once made to me: "They test us so much, we don't have time to learn."

I'll never forget those words of wisdom. They are forever etched in the deep recesses of my consciousness and resurface whenever I have to oversee school-wide formative assessments of my special needs students, far too frequently.

Additionally, I just realize why I support private placements for our special needs students...

Posted by: vscribe | November 13, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

You have illustrated vividly the problem with our current round of "education reform." No one seems to get it except teachers... and students. People seem to think that if teachers don't like all this data driven instruction, we are "anti-reform" and just want to be lazy. I want school to be better, but turning students into data points isn't the way to do it. They are human beings, and so are teachers. I don't know if the reformers are getting rid of the "bad" teachers, which seems to more important to them than actually helping students. But I know for a fact that nearly all the excellent teachers I know (excellent by any measure: test scores, reputation, rapport with students, creativity) is depressed and sick to death about what is happening to the profession. Every single one. They are ready to bail. If our reforems make good teachers want to leave, what good are they?

Posted by: dlfinkle | November 13, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

For anyone still obsessed with data driven instruction, please read John M. opinion piece and play the two movies he writes about. This is what teaching is all about.

Posted by: chicogal | November 13, 2010 9:46 PM | Report abuse

I've been working for a data-crazed principal for the past couple of years. The level of constant testing, measuring, retesting, etc. is insane. Every class has data charts that are updated every month posted outside the rooms. All subjects are tested weekly and then the data is analyzed to figure out how the classes will be sliced and diced into reading and math subgroups assigned to special tutors who then measure and evaluate once or twice a week. Test scores are very high at this school, but the kids can't think their way out of a paper bag. They don't read novels or write anything that doesn't feed directly into the SOL essay format. Their math skills are pathetic. All they can do is to respond to multiple choice formats, but they are helpless when it comes to any kind of problem solving. Even the smartest 5th graders are stymied by 3rd grade multi-step problems. They are unable to construct any kind of reasoning that requires logical steps.

What CAN they do? They can ace any kind of multiple choice test. They have been taught strategies for backing into answers, eliminating unlikely ones, and increasing the odds of picking the correct one. But that's all they can do. Like their brothers and sisters before them, they will baffle school administrators when they begin to wash out in middle school. "How could these kids with such high SOL scores do so poorly in middle and high school?" they will ask.

There is no joy at this school. When you walk down the halls, there is no laughter, no sounds of surprise or delight from children reading great stories or discovering new ideas. You can feel the tension in the air. The teachers at this school have an abnormally high absentee rate. Most use up all of their sick days every year because they need relief from the unrelenting stress. The place is a dark nightmare. One parent told a teacher this week "I sent my daughter to school to learn. I didn't expect her to come home broken."

But the test scores are good, so the district loves it.

Posted by: aed3 | November 13, 2010 11:48 PM | Report abuse


Could you please stop fantasizing about me and what car I drive? It is just creepy. Very, very creepy.

The biggest mistake you make in your reasoning is that knowledge can be measured and sorted in a reductionist fashion from multiple choice tests and then applied to others who didn't even take the test in the first place. I can only surmise that you have a closeted experience in this area. Perhaps you should broaden your experiences and come out of the closet.

You seem to drag your myth along with you everywhere you go, Sarah. Doesn't it ever get burdensome believing in lies?

Posted by: DHume1 | November 14, 2010 2:14 AM | Report abuse

Sarah acts very, very creepy.
She so much wants to know what responsibilities people take that she is willing to go up to a Catholic priest and ask him if he abuses children.
Many times on this blog(ue) or that of Bill Turque or Jay Mathews, she has propositioned me!

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | November 14, 2010 2:44 AM | Report abuse

Bravo! The mantra at my school is that data can tell you a little about little Johnny but not that little Johnny lives in a car!

I have a student who, on paper, should be a straight A genius. But, in reality, he told me on his last assignment that Paris (from the Illiad and the Odyssey) was the capital and largest city in France just like New York which is the capital and largest city in the US. He wrote this in impeccable handwriting and illustrated the page in the assignment with great care. However, out of the 55 students given this assignment, he was the ONLY one who got it totally wrong. So much for data....just one more reason No Child Left Behind and our Education Secretary need to be LEFT BEHIND!!

Posted by: geojeanie | November 14, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

In the words of Jim Rhome, "Rack it."
Ms. Wilson captured beautifully the rock and hard place in which so many teachers find themselves today. I say always that standardized assessments never tell me anything about my students I didn't know from my own assessments. In our urban schools, though, if parents/community isn't holding the schools accountable for their jobs, someone/something must, and that something tends to be standardized testing.

Imagine if Sam is from a single-parent (female) family, and his mother has attended rarely parent conferences. When Sam comes home there may or may not be an adult there to supervise homework, and there may be younger siblings. If Sam has more teachers like the one who yelled at him vs. Ms. Wilson, with no accountability from the parent or system through standardized testing Sam would be lost. The other variable, one which I think is more important, is the school leadership.

A Principal must be aware of teachers who yell at a child for getting things wrong, as well as nurturing ones like Ms. Wilson and hiring more like her. Quality leadership would expect every teacher to strive to meet the needs of all their students as best they can, supporting them fully in their efforts.

Data is helpful, but it's only a part of knowing your students, because we're teaching them as much as the content.

Posted by: pdexiii | November 14, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Wow, Maja nailed it. My first decade of teaching--the 90s--I used thematic and integrated curriculum with my interdisciplinary teammates. The second decade--2000s--was all standardized and quantified, and I worked alone. This post captures the difference accurately and poignantly.

By the way, this year, my 21st, we are in 'Program Improvement' and subject to being closed down by Data...or is it, Oh Data!

Posted by: kidswarrior | November 14, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Philly and David are a match made in heaven, and probably drive similar vehicles.

As for Philly, seemingly shattered,ignores help that his brand-name faith offers him. In lieu of that, tho, it looks like DHume1 will salve his wounds, so to speak. Bros in thoughtlessness. Jim Carey once starred in a film about two such friends.

Too bad neither of them is much interested in education, which is what most of us would like to discuss here.

Posted by: axolotl | November 14, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

This is my 21st year of teaching and I can attest to what people are saying. I am depressed and sick to death with what is going on in education right now. I think the pendulum has swung too far to one side and we need to return to a balanced center point, somewhere between pushing forward and taking time to observe what is happening in the minds and hearts of our students who are receiving this barrage of information. Right now we are talking "to the hand." We are being told to do it and shut up. The students are getting the same message. Abandoning my career doesn't make sense; it is my chosen profession, but I am very sad and discouraged about the lack of wisdom and humanity going on in our schools.

Posted by: DoGoodAnyway | November 14, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse


Just another myth you believe in. Tsk, tsk. Perhaps "fantasize" was the wrong word. I think "delusional" is a better one. It actually fits better with someone who believes in systems that are not real.

I'm sure many would like to discuss sound educational policy. They are just not going to get it from a mythmaker like yourself.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 14, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse


It was only luck to nail the S60, but Google Earth suggests a matching lifestyle. Droning and moaning, its driver pathetically craves real intellectual release while peddling freelance content to the local free newspaper. We're still waiting for the good stuff from you--about education, your specialty. I remain just a bystander waiting to learn from you, the guru.

Posted by: axolotl | November 14, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse


Nothing has been nailed. Sadly I drive a Ford. And my spouse, a Toyota. I guess you don't nail much these days. If you got me wrong, I can only imagine how much you miss the mark on educating The Children.

Astonishingly, I'm still waiting on you to contribute too. I really haven't seen you contribute anything of value. Absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. You had the chance with 1bnthrdntht, but you came up a little flaccid there. I guess that explains the weak follow through.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 14, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse


With all due respect, WTF is 1bnth.?
Re your cars, so what?
Contribute to what, your Tparty treasure chest? We're still waiting for your insights on education, your specialty, eh?
Re weakness, you > four hours, sir, and need to seek immediate medical attention.

Posted by: axolotl | November 14, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse


I can only say that I read it all. You obviously, do not. Someone asked you to tell him some of your research. You did nothing about it. No medical attention needed. Perhaps you need to take a test on reading comprehension or get a new pair of contacts or glasses. According to your own rules, I'd have to fire your butt.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 15, 2010 12:06 AM | Report abuse

This is a total piece of garbage. I am sorry I wasted my time reading it.

If Sam improves, the data improves. Yes, it takes some insight as to why the child is not succeeding, but that doesn't mean you don't measure the result. In fact, without the data you wouldn't have even known that he wasn't understanding the topic.

Posted by: staticvars | November 15, 2010 1:19 AM | Report abuse


The author never said "not to assess." The basic difference the author is explaining here lies in performance-based assessment and factory-fill-in-the-bubble based assessment. Both are forms of data, but one requires experience in the classroom and the other requires the mindset of a toad to give or understand. Even student observation is a form of data. The author obviously used data. The teacher here wants to look at every child individually through a holistic prism. The word data is used here to refer to NCLB high stakes testing that reduces children to numbers instead of individuals.

And by the way, it is very possible for Sam to improve and the data to remain the same or lower. If you don't get that, then you haven't been around enough people to understand it.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 15, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

David believes all participants in this blogue read all posts all the time. Some of us don't have the time or the riveted interest that he demonstrates. More power to him, nonetheless.

David/DHume1 is grasping for his rightful place on the pantheon of ed. gurus, along with Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan. But they are more polite, and it seems, brainier. Randi W is his idol, and he once got her autograph.

We continue to be awed by the acidic confidence with which he delivers his latest pronunciamento, furtively in his cube in the fudge factory.

Posted by: axolotl | November 15, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse


I love fudge. I also love alliteration. But the incongruous mix of ideas and people in the last post just don't work here. I suggest you go back and get to work on it again.

I also like how you said so what about the cars when you are the one who keeps harping on it. I feel like I am writing to two separate people sometimes. I can't even fathom how that is possible, but it apparently is.

Keep the myth alive, Sarah.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 15, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company