23 April 2018

Words, Words, Words

I found an administrator crying in the hallway today. It was because of this:

These are lists of words found on our K - 5 report cards. The words in each list only appear for students in those populations. The words are ordered from most frequently used to least, although in some cases, "most" might only be 2 or 3 times. It is important to consider these as a type of gestalt—where the whole picture is more important than the parts.

unwillingness, refused, defiant, unhappy, tantrums, severe, scribbles...

This list and its brethren brought the administrator to tears, and while I cannot say that I reacted to the same degree, I have had more time to come to terms with these lists.

They are part of the most recent district data story I built. We are looking at the comments teachers write for student report cards. This contrast between general education and special education is one of four. I also did the analysis to contrast comments for students of colour (vs. white), students from low income backgrounds (vs. not), and students who identify as female (vs. male).

When conducting research, we often look to reject the null hypothesis. The basic concept is that there shouldn't be any difference between two groups that are being compared. And while I will not claim that I was following any stringent statistical guidelines with this work, I will just say that I was so hoping that I could accept the null hypothesis this time around. I would love to tell you that we talk about the performance of boys just the same as we do girls. But I can't. I can't tell you that we view students who qualify for free/reduced lunch the same as every other kid. Ditto for our students of colour and their white peers. Our words are different. Our biases are revealed. Our words are not just words.

This is not to say that there aren't commonalities. There are. At least 97% of the words are the same between any two groups. That's pretty significant.

In fact, these 50 most common words are pretty much what you might expect for an elementary comment. It's just the little variations that make us take notice...and, perhaps, even bring us to tears. It is my hope, of course, that they also bring us to action...to conversation...to change ourselves and our words.


You can learn more about how we built this data story over on my Excel blog.

10 December 2017

Lucky 13

Ye Olde Blog is thirteen years old today. A teenager on the web can be a dangerous thing, but I am hopeful that although the pace of posting has slowed in the old age of this space, measured thought is replacing youthful exuberance. I also hope that I am not so aged that I start to scream at young blogs to get off my lawn.

I still think that blogging has a place in education---and for educators---even after all this time. There are more forms available now than when I started, whether it's microblogging via Twitter, Facebook posts, or WordPress sites. But the goal is the same...one of personal reflection in a public space. I don't deny that this terrifies some people, either when I do it or when they think of doing it for themselves. I feel sorry for those who believe I want to use this platform to talk about them...who have missed the message that I am only talking about myself. Perhaps they are worthy of attention, but that is all the more reason they should be blogging, too. Your ideas are valuable. Put them out into the world and stop worrying about what others think. That was over in middle school.

As always, I am grateful for the community this blog has built over the years. I have met so many of you at national conferences, workshops, and in other spaces. I could not have found you without this space, and I would not be the educator I am today without these connections and conversations. It may have not always been smooth sailing, but I have no regrets about this blog. It has enriched my life and career in ways that nothing else has.

What does Year 14 hold? Hmmm...I want to talk about agency and empowerment. I'll be at the ASCD annual conference in March. I'm planning on spending my winter holiday writing a book (!). I want to be with you here, when I can.

06 November 2017

Those Darn Kids

A couple of weeks ago, I had several conversations where someone used a term such as red kids or bubble kids. Now, I have heard these terms a lot over the years. I'm pretty sure I've referred to bubble kids myself. But for whatever reason, these labels whistled at me in a way that they haven't before.

What do we really mean when we refer to red kids? Is this a convenient way to categorize struggling students, students-at-risk, low performers, etc.?

And then a couple of days later, I saw this tweet in my timeline:


I started to think about these labels. They are from Mismatch: Historical perspectives on schools and students who don't fit them (2001). What would we add to the list from the current decade or so? Perhaps...Red kids. Title kids.

Those kids.

It made me wonder what we mean with these labels. Who, exactly, are we categorizing?

So, I pulled some data on our current sixth graders. What I learned was that the students we are including as red kids are disproportionately male, low income, and receive special services.

I won't claim that this is what the label means for all grades, schools, or districts. But the qualities of ours made me ponder the concept of privilege a bit further. Being a low-income white male might be a disadvantage on state tests, but it is certainly not a detriment for society as a whole. No matter how much these students may struggle in school, they will not have to struggle as much in life as those who are low income and black...female and Hispanic...or others who may be more successful at the present time. To be clear, I don't want any student to struggle or not find the support they need while they're at school. But I also have to be real about the work we have to do as a society.

I am hoping to prompt some conversation and some reflection about all of this within my district. So these data are the source of my most recent data story. If you're interested, you can read more about how we constructed this display or view the data summaries for yourself.

02 October 2017

Climate Change

The terms culture and climate are often used interchangeably when referring to schools. But these refer to slightly different traits. A building's culture is demonstrated through its way of doing things: how PLCs function, norms, and so on. It's internal to the system. But the climate? That's sensed by outsiders. When they walk into your building, do they feel welcome? Is there a sense of safety?

I've had the privilege in visiting dozens and dozens of schools over the last ten years. And I can tell you that climate is a very real thing. You know instantly if a school is a pleasant space to be and whether you would be willing to work there. I realize that doesn't sound very scientific. That's because it isn't. It's very affective based, but real nonetheless.

I recently posted about my Dear Principal project this year. As I visit more and more buildings, it is interesting to see the climate reflected in the data I collect and represent. One school, which I would not have identified as having all that positive of a climate, had the largest number of student to adult interactions. Kids were incredibly friendly. Many of them readily struck up a relaxed conversation with me---and I had a great time chatting with them. It was a very pleasant surprise. And then another school turned out to be not that way. Remember, for this first round of data collection, I am documenting the number of smiles I see. In this particular school, I made two rounds through the classrooms...and I only found one instance of a kid smiling at another kid. One. The number of other interactions was also depressingly small. No joy in Mudville, my friends. But there could be any number of explanations: time of day, length of my visit, or even chance.

Now that I'm nearly done with my first round with schools (we have 10 schools and my goal is to do three post cards for each this year), I'm starting to notice some other trends and ponder other ways to collect and represent data about schools. While I am asking principals for what they wish people knew about their schools, here are some things I'd like to pay attention to:
  • How often to teachers talk to girls in their classrooms and what is the nature of these interactions?
  • How often are their words of praise or encouragement?
  • Where do students of colour sit in the classroom (especially with relationship to the teacher desk)?
I am trying to stay away from things that principals would monitor or talk about with teachers as part of the evaluation model. As interested as I am in the idea of student engagement, I can't touch it with my project. Nor can I count things related to school improvement or building goals. I don't want to mix my purposes with theirs. But I do want to try and represent my "noticings" about their schools...to raise some awareness about how their buildings might be perceived. There is no good or bad, no goal to set or reach with these data. They're simply a snapshot...a moment in time from my visit. But maybe by pointing toward something other than achievement, we can change the climate of how we view our work.

29 September 2017

Data Academy Session One: What is effective data use?

The goal for the first session is to dig into thinking about effective data use. What do we mean by this, how do we know it when we see it, and how do questions support this work? This session is divided into three chunks:
  • How the hell did we get here? A brief history of data use in education.
  • What do we want to "here" to look like? Building a framework for data use that we own.
  • Where the hell are we going next? The role of questions and how we know when we have the "right" one.
And, okay, maybe I will be slightly more eloquent in my delivery of those points, but there's no need to pull punches in this space. We're all friends here.

Part One: How the hell did we get here? 
Look, this whole data use in education thing was not my idea. Nor is data use in our field a new idea. Our modern leanings---the approach of "data first, questions later"---starts in the 1980's and, like most poorly thought out concepts in education, had it's start in the business world. The Baldrige Framework, the Total Quality Management approach, and similar ideas continue their creep into educational systems throughout the 1990s, and when No Child Left Behind is passed in 2001, looking at disaggregated data as a starting point is pretty much codified for schools.

But we can go even further back than that...all the way back to The Enlightenment.A philosophy develops around the idea that the world should be understood through individual reasoning. And there’s this tension that develops between science and magic…science and religion…with the idea that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But the approach itself is very calculated and cold. The numbers don’t lie. Observe first…then infer. This is still a process we apply to most of our work with data.

I don't want to say that we've been doing it wrong for a few hundred years, because for the most part, this approach works just fine. And even within the last 20 years, I can point you toward some schools where this path through data has been the start of some amazing changes for students and families. I do want to say that this is not the only way to use data. I think we can do better than a one size fits all approach.

Part Two: What do we want "here" to look like?
I am an unabashed fan of a good framework...a tool that outlines the scope of a topic and hints at the qualities that lie within. I even used the Baldrige one when I was working on my admin credential a couple of years ago. And there is plenty of good quality educational research out there about what supports data use. There are all sorts of factors from information systems to data quality to the culture developed, PD provided, administrative support, and more. We're not starting from scratch and we don't need to decide what shape to make the wheel this year. But, we are going to look at data from a new angle and that needs to meld with other initiatives.

In this part of the workshop, we'll divide and conquer a draft framework for effective data use based on some current research from both education and data science, our instruction and evaluation models, and other sources. Groups will review one resource and put big ideas onto sticky notes. These will be placed on one of four posters that form the armature of our framework. Then, groups will take a poster and organize the ideas.

I did this activity with teachers last week and they are very interested to see what their principals come up with.

Part Three: Where the hell are we going?
It is not unusual in education to find a "data first" approach---that is, the data are the starting point. However, there's plenty of good research out there to show that an inquiry approach supports engagement with data. I've asked all my participants to identify a question they want to use as the driver for their work over the next few months. 

We'll talk a little about the Goldilocks question---the one that isn't too big or too small, but fits our purposes just right. There is nothing wrong with the big and small questions, mind you. Those are important, too. But we have only so much time and resources during these workshops. There is little point in learning an answer which is already published or one which requires so many resources (or new skills or some bending of ethics) that it can't be answered within the confines of our workshops.

In the vernacular of the place where I grew up, we "kick this pig" on Tuesday with administrators and then with our instructional coaches a couple of weeks after that. By then, teachers will be ready for their second session and we'll keep rolling from there...all the way through March.

I've asked participants to respond to some questions about their skills, what they think their question will be, and one more important piece: What is one thing you wish people knew about your school? I've been asking this question at conferences recently and the answers are fascinating. I am really interested to hear what people in our district will say.

Want to follow along? Resources for this session are here, and you can see the overview of this project in an earlier post. I'd love to hear what you think...as well as what you wish people knew about your school or district.

26 September 2017

Introducing Data Academy

In my previous post, I shared some of my impetus to build professional learning opportunities around data use. Now I want to preview the full story arc---9 hours built around starting with a question and ending with a data story.

There are five chunks. Not pictured is how the stories will be shared this spring. The role of an audience is both unique and critical when storytelling with data...so we'll definitely need a space and opportunity to engage with that. But I'm still pondering what that piece will look like. Each session will have some time to learn together, and some "lab" time for independent practice with the concepts. Here's what we have planned:

Session one: What is effective data use?
We will explore current frameworks and research around data use in schools. Topics will include data literacy, student-involved data use, and classroom “look fors.”

Session two: Frame questions and find data
We will focus on asking high-leverage questions, then using data mining, canned reports and extracts, and other options to pull relevant data from Skyward and Homeroom to answer these questions.

Session three: Clean, organize, and explore
It’s time to sharpen your skills with Excel, including how to join data from multiple sources, build pivot tables, as well as formula basics.

Session four: Visual(ization) literacy
Many of us were taught to read and write text, but few know the basic rules of creating and interpreting powerful visuals. We will focus on elements of visual communication, including color, chart choice, and other attributes.

Session five: Storytelling with data
A data story combines text, data, and visual elements. During this session, we will consider the ethics of design choices, the responsibilities of communicating data in equitable ways, and how we can use basic statistics to know when we have a story.

I am sure that these descriptions and the path we take through them will morph along the way. Although I built these sessions from the lens of my own background and work, I was pleased to see it reflected in an article by Ellen Mandinach and Edith Gummer entitled What does it mean for teachers to be data literate.


The bottom row of their framework envisions something similar to the arc I identified. They have
  • Identify problems/frame questions
  • Use data
  • Transform information into decisions
  • Transform data into information
  • Evaluate outcomes
I'll post some additional information about each session as we go along this year. If you are interested in the materials that support the work, please visit the repo on GitHub.

23 September 2017

What Lies Beneath

I've spent the last 7 or 8 years thinking about the role of data visualization in the classroom. I am not an expert, but rather an enthusiastic student of the subject. And I feel incredibly fortunate to work in a role and a district that gives me an opportunity to grow my knowledge and skills in that arena. This year, I get to extend that by facilitating some professional development.

We're calling it "Data Academy" and there are three flavours: one for administrators, one for instructional coaches, and one for classroom teachers. We'll have them start with a question, pull and organize data, then visualize it and tell a story with it. That's the basic nuts and bolts of a process we'll manage between now and March.

But there's always a hidden curriculum, is there not? Something unspoken, yet more important, that  underpins things. Like a good foundation garment, it shapes and supports...and maybe even provides a little sex appeal.

And what lies beneath my story arc this year is the need to create some change. Schools are using data the way they did in the 1980s. I'm tired of that. I'm tired of the curiosity and expertise of educators being stifled. I can't look at another red/yellow/green coded spreadsheet or endure another conversation that has a goal of merely admiring an achievement gap.

We need a different narrative.

I spent my time off in July outlining what this could look like, then pitched this idea as a series of after school options for teachers and principals. But my boss thought differently...that we would roll it out to all administrators and instructional coaches. Um, okay.

I was hesitant at first---and still am, at least a little bit. First of all, I don't want to drag anyone through this content. These are adult learners and should have some meaningful choice about where their professional learning takes them. And secondly, this sort of large scale rollout gives me some serious imposter syndrome.

There are ways to mitigate both of these concerns. Administrators might not get to "opt out" of this work, but they can choose their own question to investigate and story to share. I am working with a group of teachers in the after school series who are there for themselves (we're not paying them to participate) and I can test out each piece with them before I meet with principals.

But beyond that, this is the work I want to do...not the work I have to do. I see a different vision for data use in education, and maybe this is a good first step toward that.


The tweet above references a scene in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born:


So, I'm dreaming a bit bigger. I've invited some reps from our regional educational service district, as well as some of my previous co-workers from the state education agency. I've also reached out to former colleagues who work with our state school board association and principals' groups. If we're really going to change conversations about data, then we're going to need a bigger room and a bigger network. I can't be the only voice in the wilderness demanding something better.

I'm building a repo on GitHub for the materials and thinking about what the denouement this spring will look like. I should have (roughly) 50 people involved in telling unique data stories this year. I want some sort of culminating event...a story slam...where they can share and celebrate. But I have no idea yet what this will look like.

For now, what lies beneath are lots of hopes and dreams and fears. But I am making my peace with that and trying to focus on the future. In the next post, I'll share some of the more concrete plans and tools we'll be using this year.

¡Viva la RevoluciĆ³n!