16 February 2015

Getting Along


I've been thinking about this slide a lot. I have used it for almost a year now when talking about systems for data use. The start is the teacher/classroom. Teachers collect a lot of data--attendance, grades, etc. that they need to use on a very short timeline---they have to make (tactical) decisions about the work they'll do with students the very next day. However, they aren't the only users for this data. Conversations may happen at the PLC level (department) when teachers share student information. Schools and districts look at similar data, but on a longer timeline (quarterly or annually). They look for trends and patterns across buildings or grade levels. As we continue to aggregate data outward, we end up representing a lot of teachers and a very long timeline. Some things, like the Civil Rights Data Collection only happen every other year. Election cycles can further drive when strategic planning for education occurs. Different methods of data collection (school information systems vs. state/federal databases) also add a layer of challenges.

At the end of the day, this image is about communication...or the lack thereof. I can picture a teacher looking up through all those layers of the system and being exasperated that s/he isn't being heard. "Don't they understand what I'm going through down here?" And I can also imagine someone sitting atop the federal level saying to the teacher "Don't you understand that this is bigger than just you?" The truth is they're both right. It's public education---and everyone gets a say, whether you like what they have to say or not. Someone in a leadership position who doesn't share your point of view shouldn't automatically be labeled a bad leader. If anything, it's a chance to find out what they know that you don't---and also to share your information with them to round out their thinking.

I had an email this week from a teacher asking about some course title work that was happening. She referred to "the district" as if it really is an entity separate from everything else in the system. It's not. She's just as much a part of it as anyone else, even if she didn't see it that way at the moment. I tried to be careful in wording my reply---not only to put a face on "the district," as the matter in question is a project I'm leading...but also to help her think about empowering herself as part of the discussion. We're all in it together.

When I think about the data and communication pieces, I also think about this tweet from Hilary Mason:

Photo: cc-nd-nc-by Christopher Penn https://www.flickr.com/photos/financialaidpodcast/2287769216/
It's a great question. Much of the data we gather and use in the education system is about students. What does it mean to help them gain power with what we learn from the information that we have? What does it mean for a state government to help teachers gain power from the aggregated data that they collect?

I spend a lot of time thinking about my role in all of this. I'm not interested in changing the system. Over the years, I've grown to accept it as a fact of life.  Railing against other parts of the system so you can be master of your own box will get you nowhere and will only make you more frustrated and angry. Go ahead and write a bunch of blog posts about how Arne Duncan is a poopy-head because he doesn't know your classroom...but all you're really doing is confusing your job with his.

I am a mediator of sorts when it comes to data between all of the various levels. I do some of the things you might expect---looking for patterns and trying to find the signals in all of the noise we generate. I also do lots of very unsexy things---I have lots of conversations about data quality, trying to help an individual teacher understand that whether or not s/he takes attendance contributes to acts of policy at the outer levels. We can't just shake a tiny fist and claim the federal government doesn't understand when all we've provided is bad data for them to build their ideas from.We have to find ways to get along.

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