Data: What Would J.Evans Pritchard, PhD Say?

There will always be a J. Evans Pritchard trying to force the arts to yield to statistical analysis.

If you’ve been listening, you have heard the conversation. Data, Data. Data.

Standardized tests are the treasure troves of statistics that are driving–oh, excuse me, informing— instruction. # 2 lead pencils are the wands that, with the right sleight of hand, can make you see anything a skilled statistician wants you to imagine you saw.

But like poetry, teaching is an art, a fine art.  Just as it is obvious intellectual farce to reduce the mystery of poetry to the “data driven analysis” spoofed  in the clip, the same could be–no, should be— said for the purely statistical analysis of the instructional artistry that happens in classrooms every day.

Armies of academics going forth to evaluate kids and teachers via mathematical calculations, cold hard data?  Pardon?

Don’t misunderstand; testing has a place in education.  It is one of many tools good teachers use to plan and adjust their instruction. Reliable and valid testing can provide benchmarks of achievement. Sound tests can show teachers where kids need more time on task.

But great teachers know that testing–particularly one-size- fits-all testing– provides only part of the masterpiece that is learning. Learning is about curiosity and confidence. It’s about taking academic risks. It is about the intangibles that make every parent’s child a priority.

Every child who crosses the threshold into our classrooms is a unique and complex individual.They come to us with strengths and challenges, enthusiasm and fears.  No child should ever become a statistic on a bar graph, a mere blip of data on a spreadsheet.  Kids are people, not commodities.

Like poetry,the art of instruction defies scientific deconstruction.  There is just too much happening in classrooms on a day-to-day basis to reduce teaching to a few days of testing, especially flawed testing, especially testing created by one of the biggest text book publishers in the country.

Obviously, you say.

But here’s the rub. Politicians use data mined from classrooms nationwide to further their own ambitions, to promote their personal bureaucratic promises.

Just as J. Evans Pritchard’s method of deconstructing poetry ultimately destroys the beauty of the text, data driven education crushes the joy of learning, stifles creativity on both sides of the desk.  Teachers, fearful of the way test scores now compute into annual performance reviews, are far more likely to play it safe. Meeting Pearson’s benchmarks of  proficiency has become a matter of professional survival.  Kids, too, will stay within the lines because everyone knows standardized tests have no patience for divergent thinkers.

Where’s the data on the data?

P.S. : And big  thanks to all who continue to follow me on all my sites.

What We Do Is Important

     Let me open with this disclaimer:  I am not happy with what is happening to education, but I still really, really like my job.

We spent the morning with friends whose uber-successful careers have been in the corporate world and guess what?  They feel under-appreciated, disrespected, disheartened, distrusted.

Who ever would have thought that an MST and an MBA would have so much in common?  Angst? Stress? Panic?  Yup. We got that, too.

I always expected–well, more recently fervently hoped–that education was immune to the dirty goings-on we tend to accept in the private sector where success is determined solely by putting up winning numbers at any cost.  It felt safe–sometimes  a bit righteous, too– to believe that teaching would always be centered on  what’s best for kids and on discovery and progress, entities that defy a business model quantification.

Current obsession with scores and metrics as applied to instruction, however, proves that wrong. As our friends in the business world have always known,  numbers talk.  If you have been listening, you can hear the arithmetical conversation.     Teachers’  professional reputations are soon to be numerically calculated and, like the kids we teach, we are about to become known by our composite scores.  Kids aren’t numbers; kids are individuals, each with his or her own unique qualities, each with a promise for tomorrow.  I hope I never become a number to them.

The difference between the boardroom and the classroom?  I honestly  like what I do.  I still believe that what I do each day is important. I still see each child in my classroom as an individual whose potential for success is not computed by his numerical score. I come to work excited about what each day bring.  My friends working on Madison Avenue and Wall Street no longer say this.

It’s true.  I like my job.

It is unpredictable. It is exhausting.  It can be frustrating. I always take work home.  Always.

But I  still like my job.

Hostile political powers continue to disrupt and destabilize the workplace.  By the end of the week, I feel embattled and sometimes under-appreciated. My book bag is crammed with papers to grade and clerical tasks to complete.

But I really like my job.

Sounds like what Dr. Phil might call the classic definition of insanity.

But as an educator, I can still go into my classroom and look forward to the day’s work, what used to be called “teaching.”   I am excited to share a new novel with seventh graders: observing them as we read, hearing them gasp at an unexpected twist, seeing them smile, grimace, pout about the content.  It’s not about standardized tests or unreasonable bureaucratic decrees from Albany.  Though it has become over-accessorized,  at the heart of the day, teaching is what teaching has always been: about sharing a love for learning with kids.

I know that what we do is important. I don’t know how it will look on a spreadsheet or how my numbers will run.  But I know what we do in our classrooms does indeed touch the future.