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Tear Down That (Data) Wall

I don’t consider myself a veteran teacher, but in the six years I taught math in New York City, I never made a data wall. If you haven’t read 3rd grade teacher Launa Hall’s brilliant post about why data walls don’t work, you should. In fact, even if you have, go ahead and re-read it. Don’t worry, my blog post isn’t going anywhere.

In my first three years, I got away without a data wall because I was a founding teacher under a founding principal at a public high school for at-risk youth (a mouthful, I know). As I learned later, this meant school-based administrators would leave me alone as long as I maintained a stereotypically “engaging” classroom environment and produced “significant gains” by getting students to pass a standardized math test. I did that.

“Killer boots, man!”

Lucky for me, I employed a high energy teaching style, which meant I was always “on.” I could keep my students engaged, even when the content itself wasn’t engaging (sad, really). Regrettably, I was a dream come true for any principal operating in today’s test-mired public schools. I even felt special, but I know better now. I was a pawn. If I hadn’t produced results, I would’ve just as easily been asked to script daily lesson plans and put up a data wall to “hold my students accountable” and to “create a sense of urgency.”

After my first three years, I taught another three at a charter-alternative high school, serving a similar student population. It took two years before a group of us were all formally asked to put up data walls, under the guise that other teachers had been asked to put up data walls (as a “classroom management” technique), and we should follow suit because it’s only fair. We held our ground, but in the spirit of “straight talk” we asked point-blank: what evidence was there to prove data walls worked? And how were we as a school community defining “worked?” Was the mental and physical investment in data walls worth it? (And I wish I had also asked: it’s 2014, why are we still printing reports and wasting paper instead of emailing students?)

To give my former school leaders credit, they were transparent with us as we politely engaged in the discourse. No, there wasn’t much evidence to justify data walls (beyond maybe a mention in Teach Like a Champion). The truth was, our school (like other charter schools) needed data walls up in order to continue to exist without scrutiny. Data walls were considered “learning artifacts” and these appeased charter school authorizers, superintendents, school networks, and/or potential donors. These people determined whether our school would be renewed for another 3–5 years, or whether we could afford to buy Chromebooks for students.

“But, how will visitors know what’s being learned or what has been learned in your classroom?”

This is what is happening across the country: teachers are being asked to publicly shame students to appease a larger authority, for “the greater good.” Data walls aren’t about “authentic” teaching and learning or whatever the latest buzzword or buzz phrase is. Data walls are about dotting the i and crossing the t.

Buy low, sell high.

In the end, I refused to play the game. I guess if student progress isn’t updated in real-time and displayed for all to see like stocks, then no one must be learning anything. Unfortunately, school leaders know this just as well as teachers. The problem is: it appears the governing body responsible for making decisions about schools is working off an outdated checklist. And I think it’s time we looked into this checklist and the policies in place that support it. It’s 2016: children have immediate access to real-time information. The only place they don’t have it in are public schools. Do we believe an archaic wall displaying obsolete information truly motivates students to try harder? Students deserve better.

To superintendents, network administrators, charter school authorizers, and the U.S. Department of Education at-large, if you seek classrooms that develop the whole student, if you seek student populations being taught to love learning, if you seek authentic results, visit the schools, the school leaders, and the teachers that disregard your misguided, toxic “data-for-the-sake-of-data” policies and mandates. School leaders, stand with your teachers. And teachers, tear down your data walls.

By: Abbas Manjee, Chief Academic Officer @ Kiddom

Full disclosure: I work at Kiddom, a standards-based platform offering teachers integrated curriculum and real-time analytics. We do not support the use of data walls in schools or classrooms. We encourage school leaders and teachers to utilize Kiddom’s analytics to make informed and sound instructional decisions with regards to their students’ learning pathways. Student achievement data should remain private between teachers and their students, not to be used to publicly shame, humiliate, degrade, isolate, and/or otherize. If you’re using Kiddom to maintain a data wall, we’ve got some work to do. Sign up for a one-on-one demo, and let’s talk about using Kiddom’s powers for good.

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