An Introduction:

Using educational data has been called a lot of things, but I’ve never heard anyone call it fun.  In fact, in a recent Washington Post blog post (“Data, My New Dirty Word”, November 13, 2010), education blogger Valerie Strauss hosted a teacher guest blogger who referred to data as her all-purpose curse word. It’s understandable.

With all the unpleasantness that teachers have lately been burdened with around the use of data in schools, I thought it might be fun (and perhaps illuminating?) to take a little time for a whimsically-inspired view of using data that sets us all on the “right” side of what it can do for teachers, and especially what it can do for kids.

What came to mind was a quote I heard long ago that had been attributed to that “tell-it-like-it-is” maven of the double entendre, Mae West: “It’s not what you’ve got; it’s what you do with what you’ve got.” And although I never was able to substantiate this as a Westism, it sure sounds like she could have said it. Clearly, our interpretations of West’s sayings will be far afield from the inappropriate path she may have intended. Rather, I’m inspired by a meaning that might be implied to serve our own educational purposes.

And that brings me to the first entry in our Mae West using data blog series that focuses on the brewing controversy between data and using data well.  I’ll be drawing on the gratifying experiences TERC’s Using Data staff and I have enjoyed as we work side-by-side with teachers empowered to gain control of data in a way that works for them…sensibly and with heart.

Mae West Series #1: It’s Not What You’ve Got; It’s What You Do With What You’ve Got.

Reaction to: Washington Post Blog, “Data My New Dirty Word”

A recent Washington Post guest blogger speaks passionately about a perceived contradiction between the use of data to inform instruction and how a classroom teacher would carefully observe individual students and adjust instruction based on years of experience and insight into students’ learning needs. My regret is that this wonderful teacher has had such a negative introduction to the use of data. She’s been victimized by the politicos’ rhetoric describing the use of student data in a way one would expect data to be used in a clinical trial or a bottom-line business scenario in which a dispassionate analysis of the data is required.

This experience is so far removed from the way that the very accomplished classroom practitioners I have had the privilege to work with are being supported. The expectation in their schools is helping one another to analyze data in order to serve their students as individuals. They have the benefit of bringing multiple measures, and multiple insights and experiences, to the table to enlighten, confirm, and extend their understanding of the nature of the concepts and knowledge that individual or identified groups of students are struggling with. And, for them, the hard numbers constitute only one set of data points, along with observation, shared experience, and bringing students into the conversation.

The data additionally offer them insights into the areas where their own content knowledge needs to be extended and applied across a range of pedagogical practices to ensure every student has access to high quality, rigorous instruction. Teachers in these schools view their data as a way to systematically and regularly help one another with finding the right solutions and being able to measure the impact of those solutions over time, well before the annual state assessment is administered. These data team members—some more and some less experienced— mentor one another, and their leaders provide them with time to do that.

Data is a way to serve students and in doing so, it serves teachers. The successful use of the data depends on having multiple measures readily available to inform and the time and support to become informed. For all its sometimes unschooled hoopla, what the current political focus on data HAS brought us is easy access to data that can be manipulated and compared and put to work in the hands of accomplished teachers making good decisions for their own students. With the data in hand, now it’s all about “what you do with what you’ve got.”

There need not be a contradiction between the use of data to inform instruction and careful student observation coupled with professional experience. In fact, our Using Data teachers find that the numbers sometimes help dispel pre-conceived notions about what the learning problems seem to be and for whom. And so Teacher Guest-Blogger, we hale your methods. Let’s both continue to help others do the same as you seem to be doing so well.