So What Do You Do?

At a recent department meeting, the call came down for every teacher to produce spreadsheets for the data from our most recent district-mandated benchmark exam. We were to chart out student performance by standard, strand, score, and subgroup.  This request is nothing new. Administrators have been asking for charts, and teachers have been making them, since at least the nineteenth-century*. Even without the marching orders, many of us would continue to make such spreadsheets. This type of data, after all, plays an important role in how we make sense of the world.

So I spent Monday’s district-mandated collaboration time working on my chart with my teammates. Jumping between my internet browser and Excel, I exported data, color-coded cells to match arbitrary cut scores, and designated which students fit into which subgroups. (When it comes to subgroups, my district uses a fairly common quartet of SWD [students with disabilities], LEP [limited English proficiency], African American, and Hispanic.) The end result looked like this:


To preserve anonymity, every number and X placement on this chart is a complete fabrication.

Crude, but functional. Data charts are seductive. By distilling complex relational forces into “stoplight data,” this scheme offers an illusion of efficiency, a color-coded roadmap that reveals little and obfuscates much.

Regardless of how much critical pedagogy I expose myself to, this sort of testing data makes my inner technocrat drool. It flattens and compresses and whispers in the language of knowable outcomes and cause/effect relationships. Charts of this type proliferate throughout every level of education. This is understandable; the intense bureaucratization of mass scale schooling requires a high level of data transferability.

The data is a few weeks old and relatively meaningless from an instructional standpoint. Even if students just completed the benchmark yesterday, the results from a quarterly exam designed by someone I don’t know covering an arbitrarily circumscribed section of the curriculum using a handful of multiple-choice questions aren’t valuable to me.

The rationale behind making the charts is similarly uninspiring. Pick and choose from the word bank of modern education reform’s empty sloganeering: To maintain high standards for all and ensure that every child receives the support they need. To maximize teacher effectiveness and tailor instruction to suit a child’s needs. To close the achievement gap and provide an empowering snapshot of every student’s ability.

The data is also already accessible via my district’s contracted benchmark provider: PowerSchool Group LLC, a subsidiary of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. The decision to require every teacher to transfer information from a website to a spreadsheet strikes me as confusing at best and Foucauldian at worst. Understand it is not my intention to scoff at these administrative demands, only to work through the ramifications of what I’m asked to do on a daily basis.

So what do I do? If I disagree with the data chart and the assumptions behind it, how should I proceed?  In “So what do I do?” Paul Thomas describes a number of ways teachers can claim their professionalism and push back. Thomas suggests that teachers identify and evaluate their obligations with care. Brainstorm with colleagues authentic versions of inauthentic mandates. Cultivate communities of empowerment that build professional knowledge and leverage individual strengths. Expand your influence and engagement beyond the walls of the classroom to include parents, fellow educators, and community members.

By keeping one foot firmly planted in lived reality, the post’s seven suggestions illustrate David and Julie Gorlewski’s idea that “Critical educators must enact dual perspectives; they are simultaneously agents of the state and agents of change.” In the past, I would have simply crossed my arms, closed my door, and refused to make the charts. With the Gorlewski’s quote in mind, though, such willful abdication seems petulant.

In the four days it took to write this post, the data chart has come and gone. Additional action items have risen up to take their place. Ours can be a profession of ceaseless demands, a hydra. In the scheme of things this data chart is a minuscule blip. But the blips add up and form the very fabric of the profession.

I struggle to find the time and the energy to engage in the aforementioned suggestions. But I write these blog posts and use social media to expand my professional network and knowledge. For now, this is enough. For now, this is what I do.

*During the Progressive Era, superintendents and top-level administrators cast themselves as data-savvy technicians. By adopting the language of business and social efficiency, the new administrative progressives created an archetype of “effective school leader” that remains influential today. As a side note, this is one of the reasons I enjoy learning about education history. It helps me place administrative demands, and pretty much everything else, in a useful context.



  1. Gary Anderson

    Maybe it’s helpful to picture the meeting where the higher-ups discussed this mandated meeting time that they have to justify it to their higher-ups.

    “What should we have the teachers do to prove that this mandated time is being used well.”
    “Data is always good. We could have them do data.”
    “Yes! And they could color-code it.”
    “Oooooh. I like it. But that might not take the whole time.”
    “What if we also had them correlate it to subgroups? That would take up more of the time.”
    “You’re a genius.”
    “But this isn’t recent data, and it might not be completely relevant.”
    “That doesn’t matter. The main office really likes data, especially when it’s color-coded and refers to subgroups.”
    “OK. Let’s go with it.”

    I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a variation of “It doesn’t matter. They just want the data.”

    Now back to those real-live students!


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