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Always Strive to Be a Better You

My Three Favorite Things:
Data, Data, and Data


Educators, as a breed, are afraid of data. We shy away from them, shun them, and generally treat them like contagious numerical pathogens. After all, for decades -- centuries, even -- we have been the evaluators, assigning grades and pointing out errors our students make but now we are the evaluatees, often left to the mercy of unpleasant school designations and ugly press descriptions.

But those fears and mistrust are misguided. Earl and Katz (2006), in Leading Schools in a Data-Rich World, state flatly,

"Data, by themselves, are benign. Meaning is brought to data by the human act of interpretation."
So what we really fear and mistrust are politicians and newspaper reporters. Some big revelation.

Data are wonderful things, and in the right hands they can help school officials and teachers make tremendous decisions to support the learning goals of their students. And, last I checked, that was still one of the major tenets of the American public school system.


Data are bits of information, nothing more. Remember, they are benign. Number of items correct, percent of students scoring 75 or higher, number of minutes spent teaching math, words correct per minute, angle of a sharpened pencil All of them are simply information, facts awaiting analysis, evidence of learning anticipating scrutiny, details pending examination. They sit there, in rows and columns, on spreadsheets or notepads, patient and passive while we determine their purpose.

[content block] Formative data are bits of information that we use to guide future decision-making. In the real world, they are the results of a medical exam from which a doctor can determine the cause of abdominal pain and prescribe a course of treatment. In a school setting, they are the results of an introductory literacy assessment from which a teacher can plan instruction to help the student improve reading comprehension strategies.

Summative data are bits of information that we use to perform a final analysis. They are the equivalent of an autopsy, which is an all-too-familiar metaphor to principals of schools designated "failing" by a certain Federal accountability program. Summative data give us final grades and tell us how much in taxes we owe. By the time they show up on the scene, it's too late to do anything about them.


Data provide us with feedback and guidance. They awaken us to our successes and failures, sharing information that allows us to alter our paths or to forge forth, depending on the scenario. But in order for the data to be truly useful, we need to remember one fundamental law of data existence: We are in charge of the data, not vice versa.

Data that arrive on our doorstep unannounced and uninvited we should repel -- they are pretentious little bits of information that know not their own boundaries. Data that land upon our laps out of thin air we should also buck -- they are no more than overstepping parasites wishing to feed upon our decaying academic flesh.

No, for data to be beneficial to us, they should agree with their fate and wait for us to engage in "the human act of interpretation." We should hunt them down in a giant numerical and informational big-game safari. We should identify, track, and hone in on specific bits of information that we need to answer questions we have, then target those data in our scopes and fire away.

Here are the questions we need to answer in order to acquire the data we need -- so we can all share love with data.

  1. What data do we need? What are we trying to determine? What do we want to know? Do we need formative data or summative data? Are we evaluating the implementation of a new program, are we preparing to design instruction for a third-grade science unit, or are we crafting interventions for students struggling with reading fluency? Only when we know what we need the data for should we even begin identifying them.
  2. What data will answer these questions? What information works to support these needs? Will assessment scores provide accurate data, or do we need more objective information? Would a combination of assessments provide well-rounded data sources that address the issues at hand? Do we even have the tools that return such information, or should we continue to seek for the data sources that can fulfill the task? After we have found the proper data sources, we can begin to collect the bits of information we need to proceed.
  3. Did we collect enough data? Are there bits of information missing that are essential to fully answering the questions that began this quest? Are the data reliable (duplicable) and valid (accurate)? If necessary, retrace the steps and obtain more or critical pieces that complete the puzzle. Then, we can hire the data into their ultimate employment as we take the next step: data analysis.
  4. What do the data tell us? When we put the data to the test, do they answer our questions fully? What conclusions can we draw from the data we have collected? Could contrarians refute the conclusions based upon the same data, or are our interpretations inescapable? According to our readings and calculations, what would be a prudent next step? What action should we take now?
Data should not be feared. There is no logical reason to fear information itself. The conclusions we draw, however, may give us ample cause to develop hives and tremors; but those fears are based upon the errors present in the activities prior to data collection. We shake because our reading program is ill-equipped to handle students of various backgrounds; we become anxious because we do not adequately differentiate our instruction for children of poverty; we grimace because a high percentage of students failed to complete simple algebraic equations correctly. These are not data-based fears, they are behavior-based fears.

Data are bits of information. Only when we scrutinize them and make sense of them do they take shape. Then, we become knowledgeable. Then we can act. Then we can succeed in our tasks.

Don't you think it's time you found some data and thanked them for their presence and help?

Always strive to be a better you,

Article by Pete Hall
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World