Solution seeking or finger pointing?

I’ll never forget a principal that I met a few years back who I’ll call Tommy Weiss*.  Tommy was the principal of a middle school who was convinced that his teachers were lazy, careless and ignorant to their own instructional shortcomings—and he’d decided to use data to batter them into submission.

“I’m going to take all of their common assessment scores and post them on our building’s data wall for the whole world to see,” he said.

Knowing that making data transparent is important for driving change in buildings, I could kind of understand where ol’ Tom was coming from.  Something in his tone made me question his intentions, though, so I figured I’d offer him some advice.

“Tom—are you at least going to post the scores anonymously?  What about school-wide conversations?  How will your building reflect together about what these numbers show?  As a classroom teacher, I’d feel a bit threatened by my name and numbers being splashed across a wall without any surrounding conversations or explanations.”

His reply caught me by surprise:  “Posting data without names?  Are you kidding?  I want these teachers embarrassed about how poorly their students are doing.  How else are they going to change.  In the business world, they call this ‘confronting the brutal facts,’ and it’s time we got brutal in teaching.  If you don’t want your name attached to low scores then do a better job.”

Shocking, huh?  But as I found out a few months later, not totally unusual.

That’s when I was sitting in our school’s auditorium during a data analysis staff development day and saw our end of grade test scores projected in size 248 font on the 70 foot screen in front of the entire faculty.  “If you’ll look carefully at the sixth grade reading results,” droned the county speaker, “you’ll notice that the teachers at this grade level are decidedly average at best. But not to worry–once your students get to seventh grade, those teachers will get them caught up to speed.  They’re much better.”

I’d never been called decidedly average in front of my entire faculty before.  It was humiliating at best.

Heck, it was borderline brutal.

And it was completely unproductive.  I’ve walked around with a chip on my shoulder about data AND those who work in untested subjects ever since.  “Put me in a position where there are no assessments to evaluate my performance and I’ll be a star too!” I grumble.  “And whatever happened to the myth that we’re a team working together to improve teaching and learning?”

Now, I’d like to hold each of these guys responsible for their actions and humiliate them here on my blog.  It certainly would make me feel better to publicly call them out on their mistakes in thesame way that they seem so committed to the idea of publicly calling out the teachers of tested subjects.

But to do so would overlook one of the reasons for their poor decisions:  We really haven’t been data driven for all that long!

While it’s embarrassing to admit, for about a hundred years, there was little in-depth analysis being done on the work in our buildings.  As long as the influential members of a community were satisfied with their schools, questions weren’t asked and teachers were trusted to provide feedback about student learning.

The result:  The struggles of poor and minority students were hidden—right along with the incompetence of lazy and inept teachers who’d earned tenure and just didn’t care anymore.  Combined with an interconnected new world economy that hasfewer manufacturing jobs, it is no longer enough for schools to hope that they’re reaching every student.

We simply must become more systematic about our work—and data analysis is a part of that process.

The challenge is that few educators—-principals and district level leaders included—are all that great at using numbers to change conversations in schools.  Tommy Weiss was wrong in a million ways—but not because he’s an evil dude.  He’s just a guy trying to make sense of new changes that he’s been poorly prepared for.

Which is why we need more Charlie Colemans.  Charlie is a middle school principal in British Columbia and a Solution Tree Professional Learning Communities associate who writes about his practice on the All Things PLC blog.  In a recent entry, he wrote about how he deals with the brutal facts in his building:

First, the teacher and I had a private conversation. I told her that while reviewing the Term 1 results, one of her classes really stood out as a cause for concern. Before she could feel attacked or defensive, I suggested that this must be a very tough class with a number of students who had obvious learning challenges.

This set her at ease, and she was able to share with me a number of her concerns and challenges with this particular class. I apologized for not noticing the challenges sooner and asked her how I could help support her and these students. Together we brainstormed some possible solutions, and I promised to work toward some of them.

Charlie goes on to emphasize that responsible conversations about data are “solution seeking opportunities, not finger pointing exercises.”

This simple truth has got to find its way into more of our schools if we’re ever going to see teachers embrace data analysis—and change begins with a school-wide commitment to the idea that results are a reflection of the strengths of our practices instead of the strengths of our practitioners.

* Name changed to protect the identity of the clueless.