Taking the edge off a naughty four-letter word: Part 1, The Classroom

Do you know what’s become dirty little four-letter word that I really like?  Or used to like…before it was twisted and turned into a nasty term due to blatant misuse? Data.  Don’t believe me? Try walking into the teacher’s lounge, office, or library of your local public school and say it. Just like whispering the name “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter movies, the word “data” sends tremors down the spines of those present with its mere mention. Many tiptoe around it and don’t even say the word out loud, but instead call it “that which shall not be named.”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of eating breakfast with Pam Allyn: literacy expert, blogger, and Common Core advocate.  One of the jewels that came out of our conversation was data-related: how so much of our current dialogue is about assessment and it’s the tail that’s wagging the dog. Her husband Jim then offered this solution: if we believe that we are misusing data to the point that it’s become a dirty word, we must change that dialogue.  We must offer solutions. If we are concerned that society is too obsessed with quantitative black and white numbers, we need to demonstrate how we’d like to think about it more effectively. Also, if we strongly believe in qualitative data, we need to show what that can look like. We must gently nudge and offer out-of-the-box, bold solutions based on our deep knowledge and experiences as education professionals in order to begin to change the conversation around data.

So what can that look like? How can we “do” data differently? (And by do, I mean think about it as more that just a test score.)

Here are some starting points I have swirling around my head. I’ll preface by admitting this list is incomplete and idealistic, but it’s a solid foundation to start collecting ideas.

First of all, data should be a storyteller. And not just a page or chapter of a story, but a miniature version of the growth that has occurred. It should paint a picture of the whole setting, not just be a peephole into a tiny segment. For quantifiable data, how about:

  • How many books my students have read by the end of the year (thank you to Donalyn Miller for that great nugget of an idea from the Book Whisperer!)
  • Parent surveys
  • Student surveys (The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher found these to be great predictors of “teacher effectiveness.” I find them to be great data for me as a growing professional!)
  • Family communication: the number of times we’ve communicated, worked together, and the perceptions of parents on our partnership
  • The number of hours spent researching and reading to make our practice stronger (I think this would be laborious, but I think it would be amazingly interesting!)

And for qualitative data:

  • Student reading journals and reading logs
  • Self-reflections completed about student growth as readers and learners
  • A portfolio of each reader’s progress throughout the year
  • Videos of my students learning
  • Student interviews
  • Interviews from my colleagues and teammates

And here is one my biggest reflections. I think some of the most valuable results don’t always show up in a year. That is a quick turn-around for big goals, and many of my goals for my students are monstrous. My main goals in my reading class?  That my students have begun to fall in love with books, that they see reading as a tool to be a lifelong learner. That they see education as a lever to reaching their dreams, that they see school as an avenue to help them reach their goals in life. And how do you measure that?

Please add your thoughts and ideas below. And be watching for part two: how do we measure teacher leadership?

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  • Angie Miller


    I agree, Megan! As a teacher, it is irresponsible not to use the data you talk about–we need to get feedback from all aspects of our community and classroom to continue to improve our practice. Unfortunately, student feedback, surveys, progress, etc. have lost meaning in data analysis in the face of standardized testing. Administrators want to know how well our kids have done on tests and not how much passion they have for the classroom or what kind of progress they are making. I, too, cringe when I hear the words “At the next faculty meeting we’re going to analyze data.” Rarely do those sessions do anything to help me reflect on what I do and how I can improve.

    • MeganAllen

      Reframing the data conversation

      Hi Angie! I’d love to get your thoughts: how can we start changing the conversation around data? So when we do hear that announcement, we don’t cringe? And is part of it reclaiming our PLCs, even?

    • MeganAllen

      Reframing the data conversation

      Hi Angie! I’d love to get your thoughts: how can we start changing the conversation around data? So when we do hear that announcement, we don’t cringe? And is part of it reclaiming our PLCs, even?

  • Wandering Educators

    That 4 letter word…

    I LOVE this. I love your last paragragh. For in the midst of data, we need to think about what it actually MEANS to students. And sometimes, one overarching goal (loving something) can be much  more powerful than numbers (books read, etc.). Yes.

    • MeganAllen

      Shifting from a pipe dream to a reality

      Wandering Educator: How do we make this a reality? What could be the first micro-level, small step that we take?

      Thanks for your comment!


  • Alex Kajitani

    Dealing with Data

    Great Topic, Megan!

    Data is necessary, useful, and, as you mention, a great storyteller.  Here’s an article I wrote a while back called, Dealing with Data.  In it, I make the case for the following:

    1) Data should be used to begin a conversation; not to end it.

    2) Behind every piece of data is a real student.

    3) Data kept secret is useless.

    4) When possible, use analogies.

    Here’s the article: http://www.rapsa.org/content/view/832/1/

    Thanks for bringing up this important topic!

    • MeganAllen

      Intriguing thought

      Hi Alex! Loved your article. I would also love to hear your thoughts more on the analogies piece. Can you break it down for us (that was a rapping pun there, our Rapping Mathematician!)?

  • PaulBarnwell



    I’ve written several pieces about this over the years, and the discourse certainly hasn’t shifted.  It’s especially tough to talk about other things in a building where we are still under the microscope as a priority school.

    If you left it up to teacher leaders to decide what data any given school should collect, there’d be a far more enlightening picture of what’s going on in schools!

    Thanks for this important post!

  • Mark Sass

    What we do in response to data

    Great post,

    Of course what is key in using data is how we respond to the information it provides us. If the data doesn’t provide information it is DRIP (data rich, information poor).

  • KellyStidham

    Data Literacy

    Megan, I love your point about Qualitative data.

    I think it speaks to how important it is to consider multiple measures of any quantity.  Its a lesson we mathematics people try to embedded in teaching students to be data literate, but often loose on ourselves.  I happen to like this simple protocol for looking at data -As Evidnece -in a meaningful way.

    For each data set: ask  What do we notice?  What questions does this raise?  What are the conclusions?  What are our hypotheses of practice (not about a judgement of kids, what about Instruction led to these results)?  What are the next steps?

    But more importantly, when all the data is together, including reflections and qualitative measures, ask.  What does comparing and contrasting the data sets tell us about instruction?  Does this evidence support or contradict our assumptions?  Do we need to ask other questions to help us understand?

    I find it is almost always the questions left to be answered that moves us forward in our thinking about teaching and more so about learning.  This is why looking at data as a team is so important!  I get feedback on my own data literacy from my peers.

  • Peter Greene


    My argument has always been that the “data” we’ve been offered by vendors and testers is tiny and inadequate. Like a bad meal, it’s both the wrong stuff and there’s not enough of it.


  • Paige Kowalski

    Data Literacy

    Hi Megan,

    Thank you for addressing this topic! It’s so important right now for teachers to demand good high quality data from their districts and states. Test scores are important (assuming it’s a good test….) but there is a richness out there that, to date, hasn’t really been tapped into by most states/districts/schools. I’ve seen some amazing examples of where it has though. Data Quality Campaign tries to highlight these on our website and we will showcase them when we find them. In the meantime, i hope you can watch the webinar we host on 2/4 (it will be archived on our website to access at a more teacher friendly time of day) on data literacy. DQC is issuing a call to action along with several of our national partners including AACTE (the colleges of ed), NCTQ, NEA, and CCSSO (the state school chiefs) to recommend policies and practices to support teachers’ use of data. Many of your challenges are addressed. Thanks again for the topic!

    Paige Kowalski

    Director, State Policy & Advocacy, Data Quality Campaign

  • Cassie

    Data is a dirty word because of failed educational policy

    The Chicago Public Schools revised both their student promotion policy and the school performance policy this year.  Both policies are almost entirely dependent on standardized test scores.  For example, 70% of the elementary school performance rating is based on test performance.  Students in grades 3, 6, and 8 will not be promoted without particular test scores.  Large portions of teacher and principal evaluation in CPS are now dependent on test scores as well.

    Until these high-stakes decisions (retention, selective enrollment school admission, teacher/administration firing, school closing) no longer depend definitively on test scores, it is silly to pretend that any other type of data matters in K-12 education.

    In order to effect policy changes, teachers need to educate parents and the public about how meaningless test scores are with respect to providing a picture of what our children are learning. For example, norm-referenced standardized testing is designed to discriminate against historically and present-day underprivilged groups; its best use is to measure the household income of the students taking it. In addition, how are we holding anyone “accountable” to anything by administering tests whose questions and development are secret and proprietary? Parents, law makers, and communities are finding false comfort in the quantitative test score data we are using to label our children, their teachers, and our schools.

    High-quality education depends on high-quality assessment, i.e. authentic assessment that is meaningful, transparent, and fair.  Until assessement-based accountability makes use of better data, data will and should remain a four-letter word.

    –Cassie Creswell, More Than A Score