by Ashley Martin with Colin Stokes
If you were to walk into a school these days in Massachusetts, it would not be uncommon to see a “data wall”: a hand-made display in a classroom or a hallway, showing how students are doing on their standardized tests. Students usually are not named, but the school community sees the numeric results that each anonymous student earned, or the average results from each class. I’ve seen walls with a football theme, with dots on a field representing each student in the class and his or her distance from the goal (i.e., “proficiency” in what the class is learning). They have the feel of a scoreboard.
As a coach to school leaders with Achievement Network, I am a true believer in data-driven instruction. And some school leaders and teachers I work with use scoreboard-style public data walls in an effort to foster a data-driven culture, keeping the school focused on boosting student learning. But I do not believe in public data walls that turn kids into numbers.
In November, teachers and parents in Holyoke, MA, actively protested data walls in their schools. The Boston Globe recently described them as “conjuring up images of...war rooms.” And I too shake my head when I see data walls deployed in such a way that they fail to inspire or even clarify information that teachers need. A tool meant to improve school culture can easily poison it. Scoreboards are an invitation to make comparisons—and to view learning as a competition.
I have seen data walls done well, though. The difference is principals thinking of data as a “springboard rather than a scoreboard,” as Paul Bambrick-Santoyo put it in Leverage Leadership. After all, good data can provide important information to teachers and students—but information is only useful if it points to instructional actions.
Data walls done well
The best data displays are grounded in the priorities of the leaders and teachers, and are designed and positioned strategically to achieve important goals: monitoring where students are in particular aspects of their learning, and taking actions to ensure all students are really learning and growing.
How do you get data walls right? There are three questions school leaders need to ask:
1. Who sees the data?
WRONG ANSWER: Everybody—students, teachers, families. Sharing results indiscriminately is a potential minefield. Students and parents are unlikely to have context or statistical background to gauge what differences are significant, or what they should be compared to. All they can see is a rank. And everybody except the one at the top has reason to feel judged. Even anonymous lists of scores dehumanize children and demoralize teachers.
RIGHT ANSWER: Teachers and their instructional leader only. Last year, Kelly Elementary School’s data wall in Holyoke, MA, was a private data wall in the principal’s office, which showed every student in the school color-coded by grade level and level of English language learning (ELL). Each student’s reading level was plotted, and re-plotted, as it was assessed at multiple points in the year. Looking at it every day helped her learn individual students’ names and their specific needs by heart so she could have more meaningful conversations with teachers about them. During coaching meetings with teachers in her office, the principal and her teacher teams could more clearly see and focus on which individual students needed more literacy instructional support.
2. Which numbers matter?
WRONG ANSWER: One number—the scores on the last test students took. Overemphasis on a single result gives people an incentive to ignore things they don’t see as connected to that result. (“Teaching to the test.”) If the stakes are high enough (e.g., their evaluation depends on it), people have a rational temptation to cut corners in achieving that result.
RIGHT ANSWER: Individual students’ growth over time, or a school’s progress toward learning specific, high-priority skills. Salem’s Carlton Elementary School has a private data wall for teachers’ and leaders’ eyes only that focuses on both students’ writing and reading scores over the course of the year. Teachers then “zoom in” on samples of student writing related to particular standards to better diagnose students’ needs. So, this is not just about looking at the numbers, but looking at student work that illuminates specific needs of students.
3. What action will these numbers drive you toward?
WRONG ANSWER: Accountability. Those who are high-achieving will be rewarded, and those who are underperforming will be motivated to improve. Accountability is not the same as shame. A list of numbers does little to suggest what to do next. A slap on the wrist for a bad test score—especially if it’s not accompanied by extra effort to reteach the material—does not inspire motivation in most children. Repeated too often, it inspires resentment.
RIGHT ANSWER: Strategic changes in teaching. Emphasizing the levels of the ELL students at Kelly keeps this traditionally underserved group of students in their school front and center. It’s a visual reminder for teachers and leaders at the school to ask themselves daily if what they are doing in the classroom and with every minute of the day is helping students improve as readers. At Carlton, teachers discuss what instructional actions they have already taken that did or did not work for particular students, to examine the ways in which reading and writing are intertwined, and to problem-solve to better support individual students or small groups of students who are still in need.
Learning is supposed to be fun, like a football game. But we don’t want our schools to have any losing teams. So let’s keep scoreboards on the field where they belong, and use data to help everyone learn.
Ashley Martin is the executive director of ANet Massachusetts.
Colin Stokes is our director of internal communications and culture.