Data Digging

IMG_0021This article, found in the December 5, 2017 New York Times and titled How Effective Is Your School District, should trigger some more in-depth thought about test results and effective schools. The assumed narrative hyped by press and edu-crats, is that urban school systems, more particularly public urban schools systems, are failing to educate students.

My experience with standardized testing and assessment of children based solely on such measurements has not been all that informative or enlightening. As an example, the last class of fourth grade students I taught before retiring regularly wrote reflective responses to their reading. Their writing was (developmentally) appropriate and most were meeting grade level standards based on the rubrics and inter-rater discussions my colleagues and I used as an assessment guide. Yet the results of their state standardized testing did not reflect that.

One could certainly make the case that, in knowing my students, there could have been a layer of subjectivity which I applied during my assessment, but I don’t think that was true very often. In fact, when my grade level colleagues and I looked at student work, my assessments were most often in alignment with theirs.

So what does this anecdote have to do with school effectiveness?

For most if not all of the years when I was teaching in urban and high poverty schools, I felt as if there were more factors influencing students’ tests and my school’s educational effectiveness. And, as Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy point out in the Times article, by looking more deeply at test results and tracking student growth over time, the rest of the universe just may discover what educators have known in their gut: that when students begin education from trauma and poverty, it may take a bit of time – years actually – to catch up and many students do.

Badger and Quealy refer to third grade students in Chicago Public Schools. Collectively those students are a year or more behind when tested in Grade 3; however, by Grade 8, many of these same children have grown 6 years and are nearly at Eighth Grade performance expectation. To me, that shows a school system that despite being nearly starved to death financially, is able to provide effective education to students, many of whom come from situations of poverty and trauma.

Looking more analytically at standardized test results over time might actually show urban (and southern) schools are actually working. Using a measurement of student growth alongside those performance results shows some remarkable results. Be sure to utilize the graphic further into the article where a reader can add the name of a local district to view that district’s result on the scatter plot.


Could it be that our urban districts are models for effective education?  Here’s some solid data that shows that effective schools are not only found in wealthier communities. And it’s a good place to ask how our urban schools are effectively fostering student growth in educational achievement.

Consistency = Success

This is a parallel story.

Last year, I spent a frustrating year teaching mathematics. Frustrating because, despite what I knew to be good practice, my students’ test results were not stellar. In fact, much of the time, my class averages were below every other class on the team. In the data-driven environment in which we teachers work, that is not a good feeling.

Still, we continued to work consistently addressing standards.

As I prepped to close out the school year, I printed the growth report in mathematics for my students. And here was the surprise: 78% of my students had made high growth! Of the 78%, half were lower achieving, but their growth in Grade 3 had been significant.  If the growth had been high, those consistent teaching practices had been successful.

Now the parallel part of this tale:

This week, I had been feeling pretty low about my fitness and conditioning achievements. I belong to a fabulous gym where the owner, Sherri Sarrouf, and all of the trainers, encourage each member to be the best they can be. This is the most supportive fitness environment I have ever been part of – me, the queen of gym-avoidance; I love going to the gym!

So I emailed Sherri and told her I had a concern that I wasn’t moving forward. And Sherri, being the caring person that she is, wanted to meet with me asap.

Sherri had some data for me too. I had beginning BMI data taken when I first joined the gym. Sherri did a BMI right then and there. I lost pounds, I gained muscle, my metabolic age went down, fat – down. The evidence of success was right in front of me.

I have been consistently going to the gym – mostly because it is so FUN – and the data was there to show I was making progress.

So just like staying the course in mathematics last year, staying the course in my personal life, that consistency, had made a difference. Sometimes growth is subtle.

Consistency = success.

Defining “Good” and “Bad” Teaching

Since when does a nationally recognized newspaper purport expertise on what makes an effective teacher?

Since this morning, April 19, 2011 when the Boston Globe published an uncredited editorial entitled: Ed Commissioner’s Plan for Teacher Evaluation Gets It Right. Apparently all that is necessary for teacher evaluations is some evidence of the following:

Effective teachers routinely impart a year-and-a-half-gain in student achievement over the course of a single academic year. Three or four consecutive years of exposure to that level of instruction can eradicate the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. Bad teachers routinely secure just a half-year of student progress over the same period.

That’s right, unless your students routinely make a year-and-a-half gain in the course of one academic year, you must be a “bad” teacher. Really? Where did you get that particular piece of data, Mr./Ms. Globe Editorial Writer?  Because if true, those teachers at high performing schools may not be “good” teachers — their students may not be growing academically by a year and a half either.

We all know that there is a real need for real evaluations of educators – and I include administrators too. I’ve taught under good ones and I taught under pathetic ones. I’ve also received children from teachers who clearly hadn’t a clue and that makes me crazy too. No child should have to put up with it either.

Clearly some kind of evaluation that is constructive is needed – as opposed to the punitive “everyone in education is crap” platitudes coming from business types who really haven’t a clue what it is to deal with a human and therefore ever-changing “product” or from newspaper editors who simply and insidiously use their highly inflammatory language to sell more newspapers.

So, Uncredited (do you really exists – show your face coward!) Globe Editorial Writer, if you have some data showing that “good” means a year and a half of growth please enlighten us. If you are pulling this data to support your thesis out of your rear-end or basing your editorial contribution on your own baggage and prejudices, you should be fired.