Death by data

August 24, 2012

CST scores are in.

With the data management program my district uses, teachers can look up individual students or class periods and compare their STAR results with the school average, district percentages, and state numbers.  As department chair at a school that encourages collaboration, I am always interested to see how my teachers do by these measures.

One teacher in my department called early in the day. He actually was the first teacher to look up scores (even before I knew they were posted).  In our conversation he began his analysis of why some of his numbers were lower than last year. Then I logged in and began looking at each teacher in my department, printing cluster analyses and departmental growth reports.

That same day I began pulling data on pretty much everything measurable at a school site for the WASC midterm report I am writing. Numbers on race, gender, suspensions, parent’s education, API, AYP, CAHSEE… there are so many percentages and statistics!

And where am I now after number crunching for most of the day?  Really tired.  A little stressed.  And asking myself the same question I encourage my students to ask… Why is this important?

It is easy to get lost in a data jungle. It is too easy to make judgments about data without really knowing all the variables. Policy makers change school systems because of data.  Data brings accountability… data doesn’t lie… data is important.

Here is what is important to me:  I want to be the best teacher I can be. I want my students to work hard, learn a lot, think, and leave my class smarter, wiser and inspired. Yes… I’m idealistic.  But, the most important things are my students. Each student in my room deserves a teacher who wants to be there, is effective at instruction, and contributes to student knowledge.  I don’t want to get caught up in the mundane or the multiple demanding tasks that pull me away from the important things.  I want to teach.

I see value in the data: students can be identified for academic support services, teachers can evaluate their effectiveness, school information is accessible to the public.  But I do not want the data to overshadow all the good. Statistics are used as the catalyst for change instead of an intrinsic motivation to want to do well.

Data is part of the story, but not the story itself. The story reaches out further, deeper and is more complex than numbers on a page. The story begins when I go back to school.


Work in rooms

August 9, 2012

My back to school letter from the principal arrived today. This letter updates the staff on summer happenings including personnel changes, campus modernizations and the pre-service schedule. The second page had the following “Back to School Schedule:”

The first thing that jumps out at me is the two Furlough Days listed for Thursday and Friday.  Monday is the Labor Day Holiday and we start with students on Tuesday, September 4th (some may notice the error on the schedule:  Friday is August 31 and Tuesday is Sept. 4).  My one and only full day of paid preparation time for the upcoming school year is Wednesday August 29.  One day… paid.  If I don’t take a lunch break, I can work 6 hours on the clock.


There are several things that bother me about this schedule.  First, time allotted is not enough to effectively prepare for the school year.  Second, there is an expectation that I will put in all the extra hours needed to get ready for students because “I am a professional.” And third… the thing that bothers me the most… is that most of my colleagues (and many people in the general population) will just shrug their shoulders and say something along the lines of, “Well, that’s how it is in tough budget years.”  or  “Well, everything will still get done.” or “Well, there is nothing we can do about it.”


Pre-service during “good” budget years consisted of a district wide convocation, staff training, faculty orientation, department meetings, AND time to work in rooms.  Some of my colleagues disliked the pomp and circumstance at the start of the year, but the time for meetings, room preparation and, most importantly, curriculum planning was valued.  Those days are gone.

This year, I will prepare to teach three different courses, organize the community service office, and serve as department chair coordinating 13 teachers in my department in my six hours of paid time. Realistically, I need about six days to be at the operating level I expect of myself and believe is necessary to welcome 150 students into my room on Sept. 5. How does this work?

Unions attempt to negotiate with districts attempting to cut more as state government funding dries up. The results are many furlough days that negatively impact instructional time and teacher pay while positively impacting the accounting books.  If you make the furlough days during pre-service, you still cut teachers pay but the students are less impacted.  Besides, teachers will still do their work, right?  They still have to get it done?  Teachers can’t have 40 students in each period for five periods of the day and not be ready…. right? I mean, other professions put in unpaid hours to get it done.

And y ou know what?  Teachers will get it done.  Teachers will put in the hours needed to feel prepared and comfortable in front of their students on day one. Pay or no pay. It will get done. But the lack of time impacts each teacher differently.

I’m fortunate. I have been teaching long enough that I have great resources and experience to fall back on. The lack of professional days will hurt new teachers the most as they attempt to start new courses in their new career.  The lack of pre-service days hurts veteran teachers by not providing reflection or evaluation time on lessons learned that help teachers become better. It becomes too easy to fall back on what you have done before rather than learn something new.

But it is the general feeling of powerlessness that makes me frustrated.

The teaching profession and public education are under attack. That may sound a bit melodramatic, but I encourage you to read and follow current policy debates about education funding and teacher evaluation. How can we continue to be professional, love our jobs, and ensure students meet all prescribed academic outcomes in the current political climate?  We can’t. We are fooling ourselves if we think everything will be okay once we are in our rooms with our doors closed.

To take back power, teachers should not work during furlough days. If we are not ready of the first day… so be it. Let the kids and parents experience what happens if we are not given adequate time.  That is not what will happen. Teachers will work… even if they are not physically present in their room. Even if they come in two weeks prior to the first day to get it done (yes… that’s what I do).

To take back power, teachers need to have the conversations with parents, union reps, district administration, community members, and politicians to explain why the current state of affairs is not working.  Teachers need to pull their shoulders back ready to defend their profession instead of shrugging off and accepting what is handed out.

I will take every minute scheduled to “work in rooms.” I am looking forward to my new students and new courses. However, I plan to exercise some power this year. Back to school this year will not be back to same.