Your data dream. My data nightmare.

One of my greatest frustrations as a teacher is listening to those who work beyond the classroom dream up brilliant plans for reforming schools that are simply impossible to implement because they’re dependent on new resources that no one is willing to provide.

Take the constant drumbeat around “data informed decision-making” as a case in point.

Poke your nose into any conversation about teaching and learning and you’re bound to hear “how easy it would be to improve education” in our country if schools were just willing to “confront the brutal facts” about student achievement.

The best teachers and learning teams are “hungry for facts,” prognosticators will argue.  They take an “action orientation” towards numbers, looking for “trends and patterns” that can inform their instruction.

And of course, someone is BOUND to throw out the ever-popular argument that our schools need to take a more “business-like approach to data.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m down with the idea that using data to identify and amplify effective instructional practices can change our schools.  Need proof?

Check out the work my team has done to break down our curriculum into measurable pieces or the work that I’ve done with spreadsheets and pivot tables.  Heck, I even wrote a chapter on using data to drive decisions for both teachers and principals.

My beef is a simple one, though:  Teachers and teams in most schools are asked to do this complex work with nothing more than the most rudimentary paper-based tools.

Data notebooks have become THE fashionable accessory in professional learning team meetings.  Otherwise known as three-ring binders, data notebooks require teachers to record student learning results—quiz scores, classroom observations, project performance, assessment results—by hand and then to look for patterns in the piles of papers that they collect.

When was the last time that you carefully flipped through a three-ring binder trying to learn?  Right.  High School.  That’s where the binder died.  You probably haven’t touched one since.

There’s a reason for that:  They don’t work.

Exit slips are almost as popular as data notebooks.  Otherwise known as sticky notes, students answer review questions on small slips of paper left with the teacher at the end of each class period. Teachers then sort through stacks of responses during their planning periods, often writing down results on the class rosters stored in their data notebooks!

Think about how useless data notebooks and exit slips really are:  Neither tool allows student responses to be recorded automatically, creating yet another overwhelming clerical task for teachers.

Neither allow data to be sorted or studied systematically.  Data queries can’t be developed to test teacher hypotheses about student learning on their teams.  Sophisticated manipulation of information depends on determined teachers willing to work through data no matter how inefficient the process is.

And neither allow data to be easily reported to anyone, making it difficult at best to get parents and other professionals—guidance counselors, instructional resource teachers, administrators at the school or district level—involved in making those data-informed decisions that everyone thinks so highly of.

Imagine the consequences if we translated these data management and evaluation procedures to large corporations like Wal-Mart, whose data expertise has been well-documented in the last decade.

  • Instead of automatically tracking purchases by demographic category and geographic region, cashiers would keep a clipboard next to their registers and make tallies after each sale.
  • Instead of monitoring inventory through shared databases accessed by suppliers, warehouse managers would place new orders after counting each item, going through cashier tally sheets, and calling dozens of distributors directly.
  • Instead of using GPS technology to maximize the efficiency of the routes taken by delivery trucks, drivers would be given road atlases and sent on their way.
  • And instead of using radio frequency identification microchips to digitally monitor the expiration dates and storage conditions of grocery products, stock boys would carry notepads, manually recording lists of items in need of quick sale or replacement.

Digital tools HAVE transformed data management and decision-making in corporate America—and reformers ALWAYS argue that schools should function more like businesses—yet teachers are expected to analyze the results of their work using nothing more than binders and sticky notes.

How’s that for an epic fail?