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.

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