This is an emotional time of year for me. The gloominess of winter, perpetual sickness (thanks to my little walking preschool petri dish), and another round of “Happy Birthday to Keith” have made me a curmudgeon. Aside from my babies, Bob Dylan and classic country music, little lifts my spirits. When I read Brennan McMahon’s post on the State Collaboration on Reforming Education website, however, I almost didn’t recognize what I was feeling. It was happiness!
The post, titled "Communicating the Data Message: Teacher Effectiveness," offers a great primer on the basics of how policymakers may more adeptly discuss teacher effectiveness data. One line in the piece encapsulated something I shout from my soapbox every chance I get: “Effective communication helps prevent mistrust and confusion, allows leaders to be proactive and own the conversation, and provides stakeholders with a common language with which to discuss sometimes tricky issues.”
See you latte(r)
Before moving forward, let me be clear: You would be hard-pressed to find a person who enjoys a nice, clean spreadsheet more than I do. I’ve never met a piece of statistical analysis software I didn’t like, and given the choice between having coffee with three or four of my closest friends and running a database query, the database query will win almost every time. But as much as I love digging into data, I always begin with a series of questions about communication. Who is the audience for this analysis? How will these results be communicated to students? Teachers? Parents? Administrators? Legislators? My list goes on and on. No matter how much I love the actual data, I know that without the conversation, it is almost worthless. On day one of data-geek school, you learn that instruments and data from instruments (i.e., assessments, tests, quizzes, etc.) need to provide consistent results over time (reliability), measure what they are supposed to measure and/or provide an acceptably accurate reflection of what it is you want to measure (validity). Let’s say I have an education test that completely fulfills these criteria. Without some kind of feedback loop, what’s the point?
Let’s give ‘em somethin’ to talk about
Mrs. McMahon, a state policy associate at the Data Quality Campaign, goes on to list five “advocacy points” described to provide policymakers or anyone who needs to have an education data conversation with a strong foundation for talking about teacher effectiveness. I like that the blog is about teacher effectiveness because it serves as a great bridge for understanding the necessity for clear communication of ANY kind of education data. What is more highly charged or complicated than teacher effectiveness? If you master the art of talking about teacher effectiveness in a conversation that doesn’t end up being sponsored by Dana White, you can likely talk about any kind of education data.
If you go to Tennessee’s profile on the Data Quality Campaign website, you will see that we are not quite ready for a complete and comprehensive conversation, though we are on the cusp. We still have some data challenges related to timely access to data and the “… capacity of all stakeholders to use longitudinal data for effective decision-making.” Following McMahon’s tips would certainly help us eventually overcome our education data weaknesses.
Data has to be available in a timely way for essential feedback and planning loops like those alluded to in the post to happen. Imagine if your doctor had to wait two years for your lab results. In some teacher residency programs, that is about how much time elapses before teacher performance information is available. In those situations, educators and administrators are in the dark for 24 months or more before they even get a quantitative performance clue. Similarly, think about how important a final or eventual outcome is to the education process. For example, it is great if a middle school student does well on a mathematics performance measure, but an “advanced” categorization on a middle school assessment is not that important if it is not linked with high school performance, and then college, and then the workforce, etc. Without a longitudinal and “line of sight” approach, we are missing out on the courageous and informed conversations that can make a real difference.
I am a fan of every tip the author listed, but my favorite of the five is this: “Data on teacher performance are about more than test scores. Linking teachers and students is about more than just [a] test score. Those links also include contextual data about teachers and students, such as preparation, professional development, past performance, student outcome measures and inputs like demographics.”
This idea is applicable to all types of education data (or any kind of data derived from people). Understanding and acknowledging the context(s) in which people live, learn and work is essential to communicating teacher effectiveness or any other kind of result. Obviously, another reason why I like this tip is because it speaks to the individualized nature of data. Because most of the modern world prefers a bullet point over a paragraph and an icon over a bullet point, important contextual details stemming from individual differences often get lost. It is a humorous cliché among data folk that the answer to most education data questions is, “It depends.” Despite the phrase’s cliché status, it is true. It really does depend, and the things it depends on are often in the contextual details. Links between data must be present and part of an informed discussion.
Happy birthday to me
All in all, I consider "Communicating the Data Message: Teacher Effectiveness" to be an early birthday present. It warms my heart that a DQC policy analyst considers contextual elements important and that SCORE thought enough of her ideas to include the post on their blog. I can feel my cold and flu symptoms dissipating with the knowledge that people who truly know data also understand how important contextually rooted conversations about data are.
Keith White is PEF Chattanooga’s director of research and effectiveness. Feel free to reach out to him by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.