"Every Number Represents a Kiddo's Face"

Last week I quoted a principal who said about the student achievement data in her school, "They are just numbers, but the teachers here know that every number represents a kiddo's face."

This is a profound way to think about data, but it isn't universally understood among educators.

For example, some time ago I was talking with the brand-new supervisor of secondary education in a rural, 5,000-student school district who told me that the principals she is working with don't at all think of data in that way.

She had recently withstood a half-hour presentation by a principal who presented data layered on data, with none of it being used to help understand what the next steps should be. "It was all explanatory," she said. So, for example, the principal displayed course failure rates and then used the low attendance rates of those students to explain the failure.

What he didn't do, she said, was stop and ask, "Why are those students absent? What can we do to change the low attendance rates?"

The supervisor told me she has started asking for all data to be broken out by teacher, grade-level, and school so that everyone can start looking for patterns:

  • Do some students who consistently cut certain classes also consistently attend others?
  • Is attendance higher at one school than another?
  • Are failure rates lower for some teachers and subjects than others?

The point, of course, is to figure out whether there is anything to learn from the successes that can be replicated and from the failures that can be rectified.

These can be uncomfortable conversations that can feel like "gotchas" to educators when they first begin looking at data in this way. But they are necessary to identify evidence of success and failure in order to improve practice.

It may be difficult to bring together teams of educators to study what happened with a student who drops out or who fails to learn to read. But Menlo Park Elementary School -- and other high-performing high-poverty schools do -- and even more important, they use attendance, discipline, and formative assessment data to try to intervene before things become so dire.

Having those conversations can be uncomfortable, at least until everyone gets used to them, but they are necessary.