Data without Numbers

During the last teacher evaluation workshop I led for principals and teacher leaders, I closed with this quasi thought-experiment for them to ruminate on for the couple of weeks until our next meeting:

What if a law were passed that kept the TPEP student growth requirement but prohibited the use of any form of number or percentage as a means of showing of student growth: How might a teacher be able to demonstrate the impact of practice under such a law?

My intentions are simple: How else besides charts and percentages might we talk about student growth? As an English teacher, finding and using meaningful quantitative data was something I always wrestled with. I did eventually find a way to reduce my students to a number in a way that I felt was valid and productive. (Further elaboration here as well.)

However, as I coach both teachers and administrators in our continued intentional implementation of our evaluation system, it is clear for both groups that the pressure to generate numbers has remained great…and in many cases, has felt hollow if not contrived.

In our operationalized definition of data, we’ve come to rely upon information that is easy to communicate sometimes at the expense of information that means a dang thing at all. A graph, a chart of figures, or a line of numbers is pretty easy to pull together if we’re held more accountable for producing numbers than we are for thinking about what the numbers might communicate.

Particularly when we consider the statewide requirement that teacher evaluations include an examination of student growth data, the stakes feel oppressively high and the worry about producing inadequate or “bad” data is palpable in many conversations I have with teachers. I do want to point this out, though: The wording of the student growth rubrics (SG3.2 and SG6.2) which apply to every single classroom teacher in the state of Washington. Both those rubrics state this:

PROFICIENT: Multiple sources of growth or achievement data from at least two points in time show clear evidence of growth for most students. (Source)

Sure, there are some vague words in there: “multiple,” “clear,” and “most.” What isn’t there is pretty obvious to me: A requirement that growth be represented through a number.

When I think about my career, the most clear and convincing artifacts of my impact on student growth came during my candidacy for and renewal of my National Board Certificate. In both of these cases, the way I demonstrated growth was by contextualizing patterns of student work within my own deliberate practice, and then reflecting on the exact changes in student performance (not necessarily changes in score) that proved I had indeed contributed to student growth. This evidence included student work samples but was convincing because of the analytical narrative and reflection on practice that accompanied it all.

While I am a strong proponent for National Boards as a voluntary professional growth experience, I am not advocating for a National Board-like model for yearly teacher evaluations. I do believe however that the kind of longitudinal narrative analysis of student work I did during my candidacy and renewal was at least as convincing as any table of numbers I might have been able to produce for the same sets of kids.

Numbers have an important place, and as I said, the right numbers can paint a meaningful picture of growth. However, numbers should not be the only conceivable (or permissible) vehicle for communicating student growth in our evaluation. We need to be sure to make room for the premise that sometimes the best way to illustrate student growth might actually be to tell our story.

3 thoughts on “Data without Numbers

  1. Tom White

    Personally, I would take your proposal one step further and simply ask teachers to demonstrate how they used data – numerical or anecdotal – to inform their subsequent teaching.

    1. Mark Gardner Post author

      I’m with you on that one, Tom. That’s part of the root of this all: we have a lot of talk about of data being gathered, packaged, and handed to evaluators…but not as much talk about how we actually use the data to improve instruction for kids. I think one block is that teachers don’t give themselves credit for the data-gathering they do every single lesson, even if it is just watching when and where kids struggle or succeed with a task.

  2. Eric Hougan

    Mark, timely article. In my two methods classes, teacher candidates are grappling with how to think about and use evidence/data to paint the picture of student growth. I will be sharing this far and wide to keep our conversation going. Thank you!

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