15 May 2016

Glug

I have about four weeks left of "testing season." In truth, there is some sort of state testing window open every single day of the school year. We kick off the year with the assessment for kindergarten and wrap up with End of Course assessments for high school. But the majority of testing happens between mid-April and early June.

In our district, this final frenzy means that I monitor about 10,000 tests. Every student in grades 3 - 8 have assessments in English language arts and mathematics. Those in grades 5 and 8 also complete something for science. Science tests have to be done in one sitting, but the others can have as many as 45 days to finish. So, it's a matter of tracking not just who did or didn't test, but who hasn't finished. We have kids move into our district, as well as out, throughout the window, so that becomes another factor to track. As well as those few students who have taken a different state test due to their special needs. And ELL students who are spending their first year in the country are excused from English language arts assessments. And the test refusals. And...well, you get the idea. It's not quite as simple as getting everyone to sit down on the same day at the same time and do their thing, which is how we used to do it 20 years ago.

High school has even more oddities with testing due to the state phasing out some types while phasing in others. Different graduating classes have different tests they can use to meet those requirements. And then there are federal expectations to meet for student participation...which are almost impossible at the moment given that the test used to report that is given the year after most kids have met their grad requirements.

It's a challenge at all levels. It has been more of a challenge for me this year because not only did my assistant move on to another job the week we started spring testing...my student information person did, too. My job alone was already large enough that some parts are being shifted to someone else starting in July, and for a month, I got to pick up the work of two other people, too. So, in addition to 70+ hour work weeks, I've also been chained to my phone and email. There cannot be a time when a teacher or principal reaches out for help and doesn't get a reassuring voice on the other end. Their jobs are hard enough without them having to deal with gaps in service. But maintaining it all just about did me in.

But my new assistant started last Monday. She's very bright and excited about taking on the work. And while it takes a lot of time and effort to onboard someone new, I will reap the benefits soon. We'll post the other position soon, now that bargaining with that group is done and we can offer something solid to a new employee.

It's been a crazy spring. The work is getting done, and I'm still in one piece. I won't be going under after all.

30 March 2016

Kick It Up a Notch

Muriel Rukeyser says that The universe is made of stories, not atoms. As a scientist, I might disagree. But as an educator working with data and children, I am inclined to draw that same conclusion.

I tell stories with data all the time. It's my responsibility to look for connections and identify patterns. For the most part, however, it's focused on those tales that I am asked to tell. What are the characteristics of students who are never able to meet the standards? Does better attendance lead to better achievement outcomes? Which schools or programs best support closing the achievement gap?

We are data rich, and information poor, in my district. Perhaps you are in yours, too. So for next year, I am planning a new challenge: Ten data stories in ten months. But I don't want these to be our regular stories, such as how students performed on the spring assessments. Instead, I am looking to use some untapped sources of data.
  • For example, a month of use of the district board room. Are there connections between our stated goals and priorities and how we use this resource? How do we use time, which seems to be the most precious commodity? 
  • Or perhaps I could dive into the class of 2017 with the lens of those students who spent all 13 years in our district. 
  • What would a text analysis of a month of school newsletters reveal?

I need at least seven more ideas like these. I'd like a few "spares" because I don't know how many will be viable once I get into the actual project.

These stories will be told in two ways. First, I plan to use a bulletin board at the district office to display some offline data. I like the idea of data you can touch. Can I use different grits of sandpaper to indicate different levels? What about some 3-D paper techniques, like you'd see in a pop-up book, to illustrate change? There will be a companion web page for every data story---something that those with online access can explore to get details.

I hope to get a jump start on these over the summer. Ten is an ambitious goal...perhaps I might have to back off from that. I chose ten because we have school during ten months of the year...and we have ten schools. Perhaps December and June will be "short stories" given the number of actual school days in each.

I am excited to kick things up a notch. I have seen any number of schools with a "data wall," but none who have data stories. What stories would you want to see about your school or district? Where would you shed some light or reveal some data? What are the questions no one seems to ask about your classroom or students?

26 March 2016

Increasing Understanding with Data Displays

Commenters on the last post are looking for suggestions of better strategies for highlighting student data. As students, we often learn rules for communicating with text. We know to put a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, and end a sentence with a punctuation mark. We learn about grouping sentences of a similar topic together---and even signalling those groups/paragraphs with indentation. We have an entire grammar system when it comes to text. It's all built on enhancing the dialogue between a writer and a reader.

Visual communication is not so different. There are some basic rules, although we don't seem to teach them in the same way as we do for writing. The purpose behind these principles is the same as for text: We are trying to enhance understanding between the author and the audience.

If you were given a page of text and a highlighter, and then tasked with identifying the most important ideas, would you highlight every word on the page? Probably not. Why? Because when everything is highlighted, it is as if nothing is highlighted. Your brain cannot identify what is most worthy of attention. So why do so many educators insist on doing things like this with their data?

From strictly a visual processing standpoint, this approach has a variety of problems. The most obvious is the non-stop highlighting. If one of our goals is to identify students in need of support or identify patterns, the approach at the left is not helpful. We should be as strategic with our highlighter here as we are with text. Only those students in need of greatest support should catch our eye. This is not to say that heat maps can't be useful as data visualizations, but most education related data doesn't connect to their purpose. We need to match the right visual with the right goal, just as we might match our writing style (informative, persuasive...) to the outcome we wish to achieve.

The second problem with this example is that it has both numbers and colors. Working memory can hold about 7 items. There are 38 numbers in the Fall and Winter columns---far beyond what we could remember, let along compare in our heads. It's great to use highlighting to reduce that cognitive load, but it also means the numbers need to be hidden so we can look for patterns. When we leave the numbers there, we start devoting mental processing to things like figuring out cut scores or how far away a particular student was from the next achievement level. We're distracted from the more important conclusions about student performance.

I could put on my ranty-pants about the color choices here, but if you're interested on color perception and how it relates to your design choices, you can visit my post on my other blog (which is devoted to data viz for the classroom). Head on over there anytime for all sorts of ideas to transform your data.

Another issue with this example is that every cell has lines printed around it. This is called enclosure, and like signals such as line length, color, or position, your brain "sees" it as a way to pay attention to what's important. (To learn more, hit teh googles for pre-attentive attributes.) Enclosing everything is as confusing as highlighting everything. Let's look at enclosure another way.

Here's a typical data table. There's some students and then some item analysis for each student. How long does it take to recognize the patterns here? What if we take off some of the lines and, instead of highlighting, simply grey out the zeros?

One might argue that this type of representation isn't as sexy as the circus-like highlighting in our original example, but it sure makes things a lot easier to understand.

And that's really the bottom line with data visualization. It is intended to be a bridge between the raw data and meaning that we elicit. If the visualization gets in the way of that, then we are at risk of making the wrong conclusions or even taking the wrong actions based on those data. We can apply some principles to our numbers, much as we do with our words, to help our audience---even if it just a party of one.

13 March 2016

The Right Kind of Sticky

At one point in my post-secondary education, I took a class on working with gifted students. As college students, we took turns modeling different types of differentiated lessons with our peers. I really don't remember much about the details, except for this one example where the "teacher" asked us to think of words that "described how the soldiers at Gettysburg felt." And the first word that popped into my head was sticky. Apparently, this was not the sort of feeling that the facilitator had in mind.

I was thinking about this story earlier this week because I have been pondering sticky ideas---and, in particular, what we do with the ones that have become old and gummy, but are still hanging on long past the time we have moved to something better.

I had the privilege of attending the Tapestry Conference this week. As far as I could tell, I was the only K - 12 educator there. That's not surprising, given that it was not a conference for educators. It's goal was to bring together people who use data to tell stories. The most common question I was asked was "Are there others like you---in other districts?" This was a hard question to answer. Yes, there are people who work with assessments in every district (no matter how small), but the data part only comes into play once districts reach a certain size...and even then, I haven't run across very many who tell data stories.

Instead, I see lots of spreadsheets that are coded in shades of red, yellow, and green. This is a sticky idea---and one which might have been the best option 8 - 10 years ago, but it is certainly not considered best practice (let alone effective) now. And yet, it's so ubiquitous that I don't know how we will ever manage to shift away from it. Are we really so frightened of change that we would rather to hang onto the only thing we know than make sure we have the best option available? What does it say about us when we work in a profession devoted to learning and yet we are unwilling to learn and adapt?

I understand how comfortable it is to be in a box of your own design. Whatever passes for normal in ones' world is what gets maintained. I am certainly guilty of choosing safe over new. I'm trying to stretch more this year. Tapestry was one way to do that, and Eyeo will be next. There are all sorts of education-specific conferences I love to attend. I learn a lot of things that support my day-to-day work. But I can't pretend that there isn't more out there to explore or learn. I can go to a data conference and find things to apply to my work. I can learn to unstick myself from routines and ideas, at least for a little while. How do I help others do the same?

16 January 2016

Stretching Beyond the Boundaries

Education likes its boxes. We like grade levels and subject areas and demographics. We like hierarchy and programs. We like making determinations about who fits where, what they should learn, and how that should happen. These things are at odds with being in a "people business," but we excuse it in the name of having an economy of scale and maintaining an unquestioning status quo. Good teaching, in my opinion, is about helping students understand which limits they are bound by and which are arbitrary. Teachers support students in testing and exploring these.

As adults, we owe ourselves the same opportunities for personal and professional growth. In social networks, you sometimes hear a reference to an echo chamber that occurs when you surround yourself with contacts that are similar to you. It's comfortable and familiar and cozy.

https://twitter.com/TheAuthorGuy/status/504767989007126528

I feel those walls creeping in sometimes, too. Make no mistake, I am quite happy to succumb to their charms as easily as anyone else. So this year, I've been thinking about reaching out in different ways for learning.

Up first is the Tapestry Conference on March 9. This event focuses on storytelling with data, but it is not an education conference. I applied to be part of it for just that reason. I don't know that I have anything to offer the group that will be there, but I am hoping to learn things that I could bring back to the big ole box of education. I've been trying to shift the narrative in our district away from cartoon-colored spreadsheets to meaningful conversation about the data we collect and use. I am excited about being a part of Tapestry this year and extending both my knowledge base and personal network.

And in June, I'm off to the Eyeo Festival. I have been enamored of this event for the last couple of years and just haven't been able to make it happen. But I secured a ticket this week. And even though the festival will be at a very busy time during the school year, I feel like it's important to make the time to go. As educators, we have many opportunities to engage in professional learning that feeds our head and fills our toolbox. But this one will be something that fills my spirit for the work. Like Tapestry, it is not a conference designed for educators. However, I think that's what I need most at this point---to look beyond the borders of education and see how others are thinking about ideas related to data, design, and code.


In my quest for further inspiration, I have added a few Twitter accounts to my feed that add a sense of wonder. If you're looking for some yourself, check out the Magic Realism Bot or the Moth Generator. Both are automata...both provide something beautiful to ponder. See, too, The Strange Log, which documents "the strange poetry of changelogs and patch notes."


Over winter break, I went through and cleaned up all of my links in Delicious. Over 1200 links were deleted---mostly because the tools, articles, or services they connected with are long gone. Others were deleted because they didn't serve a purpose (for me) anymore. Something cool in 2008 is not necessarily what I use now. Since the big cleanup, I've been adding steadily, mostly in the area of design communication.This includes tagging things that relate to data visualization through the lens of feminism and audience. Again, it's an area for me to explore and push beyond the traditional narrative of communicating with data.

What are you thinking about this year that will inspire you or remind you that the edge of your rut is not the horizon? How will you stretch beyond the boundaries you set for yourself or that others set for you?

02 January 2016

Counting on You

Even though the winter season is less than two weeks old, I view the return to work following winter break as the "spring" semester. It feels more hopeful and serves as a reminder that summer is coming...someday...even if the view outside my window suggests otherwise. I am officially done with my admin credential program, which means that when I return to work on Monday, I can "just" do my job.

I have another blog, which focuses on data use in the educational setting. And recently, I've been wrestling over there with how to accurately represent and communicate about populations of students. And while readers here might not care so much about the nuts and bolts of some of this work, I do think you're perfectly poised to comment on some of the ethics and expectations associated with it. So, let me share a little background...some ideas...and then see what you can add.

I work in a district that has mostly white students from middle-class backgrounds. When I represent the achievement gap at a grade level, it looks something like this:



In some ways, this doesn't look all that different from what you might expect. White or Asian female students who do not receive special services or participate in the federal free or reduced lunch program perform better than the district average on the state assessment. (More information on this chart is over here, if you're so inclined.)

But I want to talk about the second line of data (representing race) and talk about those groups for a moment. I can't show you the actual numbers of students in each category without violating FERPA rules around student privacy. At a grade level, for example, we might only have two black students. If one meets the standards on the assessment and the other doesn't...it looks bleak. Ditto if they both don't meet the standards. However, if both of them do, they show up at 100% on the graphic above and this may also result in some ennui.

This is where I struggle with how best to represent the data. Yes, we need to consider each and every child. Every student as an individual is important and worthy of our attention and support as educators. However, small population sizes difficult to interpret for adults...and somewhat unfair to students.

For example, let's say that one of our high schools has six Native American students. When do we become concerned about disproportionality? Is it fair to assume that a "proportional" amount of those six students will take every AP course and participate in every sport or activity? Probably not, especially since those six students are spread out across four grade levels. But it is also not okay if they not represented at all. So what would make sense? Show a rolling average across 3 to 5 years?

Recently, I tried something else.


This shows student performance on the most recent state assessment in English Language Arts for one grade at one school. Every student's score is represented by a circle on the chart (n = 69). Grey circles are for scores from white students (n = 54)...pink circles are for scores by students of color (n = 15). Ordinarily, I stay away from lumping various racial groups into one category. I have really struggled with the decision here. However, instead of trying to navigate the discussion about one Native American student, what we see here is that one-third of our students of color scored in the lowest category of performance...and overall, two-thirds of white students met the standards compared to only one-third of students of color. It's a pattern that's more difficult to ignore for adults, but I still want to keep individual students in mind. (More information on the graph above is here.)

So what do you think? When there are ultra-small numbers of students in a given population, how do we accurately represent them while having enough integrity with our data to feel confident in decisions we make from them? How do we best serve our students in this area? I'm counting on you for some new ideas.

19 December 2015

The Long Distance Sprint

It is done. I have finished my admin credential---from start to finish in 6 months. I enrolled in a competency based program, so seat time wasn't a factor. I began on July 1...wrote a paper a day...and wrapped up all of my coursework on August 5. The next week, I sat for my Praxis exam and started collecting the 540 hours toward my internship. I've been interning in a school at least one day a week (and often two days) throughout the fall. And yesterday, I turned in the last of my portfolio assignments, my log of hours, and my professional growth plan.

It's been a long, hard, fall semester.

The credential was not an official condition for my being hired into my current job, but it was strongly suggested. And while at this point in my career, I have no particular interest in being a building principal, I have a long way to go before retirement. So, I will put this one on a shelf and, if the time and opportunity are right, I'll put it to work for me.

While losing 20% of my work week to an internship was difficult, I truly enjoyed being in an elementary school again. I had great mentors and fantastic teachers and para-educators to spend time with and learn from. I will miss being part of that.

But I've been very sick this fall, as well. Four months of treatment and three surgeries later, and I am still working on getting over things. I have another surgery next month...and possibly another later this spring. Juggling that into the mix of internship, classes, portfolio, and trying to do my regular job has not been simple.

A "year" means something different when you work in education. I suppose I am looking forward to 2016 for personal reasons, but in my professional life, this point in the year is only a pause in our marathon. Winter break is a time to catch my breath, and set some goals to accomplish between now and the end of the year. January will be a time to rededicate myself to my current role and maybe take on a new project here and there.

Best wishes to you all as you recover from getting the school year up and running...and make an effort to finish strong in the coming months. It's a marthon, not a sprint, after all.