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Amethyst Hinton Sainz | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification | October 5, 2012

Invisible Data


Time is money. Otherwise we would all be extreme couponers. Nothing is free. Especially data. 

“Research-based practice,” “action research” and “reflective practice” are buzz words that every teacher should have in her arsenal for the variety of contexts in which educators are asked to justify what they do each day, down to wording our objectives so that they are specific, observable and measurable. Every day. For every interaction, it sometimes feels like. 

Educational “reforms” demand more and more data about student performance, and use that data for all kinds of initiatives (schoolwide, local, state and national) most of which seem to be overturned and redesigned on a yearly basis.

Every teacher I know who has taken an action research class while teaching a full load ends up facing the same dilemma:  How do I have time to be a researcher AND an effectively engaged teacher at the same time?

I posit that most of the data that good teachers collect about their students is invisible.  An experienced, engaged teacher is data collection machine.  

August and September are intense, transitional, getting-to-know-you weeks.  After that, when I collect a stack of papers, I have predictions about what I will find there. For the most part I know what I will see, because I have clear goals, and I have been interacting with my students, listening in, answering questions, giving additional clarification to the class as a whole. This invisible data is a good thing, because the time involved in assessing any kind of written work, including recording the grades and getting them uploaded for our student stats page, is formidable. I’m sure you can do the math. I spent first quarter this year with over 160 students.

Because I know my students, once I’ve read and graded several sample papers I can begin using that information to guide my planning. The reality is, I have to operate that way, because planning, teaching and assessing is an ongoing process that does not pause in between lessons.

Experienced, engaged teachers could often be more effective if we were left alone to create an organic ecosystem with our classes in which the “data” of daily interactions and various types of assessments were allowed to be fed back into the soil of the classroom instead of being constantly imposed upon to be clearly communicated in a variety of lesson plans, spreadsheets, scantron forms, rubric scores, websites, observations, checklists, profiles, PLC’s...  Didn’t we learn about overfarming during the Dust Bowl? I need those “nutrients” of time, energy and data for my students. We currently live in a fantasy of endless harvest.

Last year, working on my National Board Certification portfolio, I was asked to deeply describe and explain why I do what I do in blow-by-blow detail.  It was grueling, but extremely instructive.  My portfolio took about 250 hours to complete, and only represented a handful of the lessons I taught last year. Truly representing the data we know about students is time consuming. And really, except for the purpose of a) improving our teaching or b) certification, who wants to read all of that? Nobody but our closest friends and cheerleaders. By the time it’s in the portfolio, it is ancient history and all of that information has already been used to the best of my ability to help my students learn.

Every teacher needs the experience of reflecting on his or her practice in order to improve. But do we need to be constantly reporting out? Is there any possibility in today’s climate of simply living in the moment with our students without peeking over our shoulder to see if someone has poked their head into our room to read our clearly worded objective on the board? If students are working with a sense of purpose, for whom did I write that objective? It’s not for me. Usually, it’s not even for my students. If I do manage to get a well-worded objective onto the board, it is simply to make it easier to communicate to a passerby what we’re up to.  Learning to create and communicate clear objectives and assess to them is essential, but once those skills are internalized by an experienced teacher and the students are flourishing, can’t we just charge forward?

Or, if our school, district, state and country really need this data, maybe our schools should be funded and reorganized to give teachers the time necessary to do meaningful research on our own practice, meaningful peer observation, meaningful reflection, use meaningful (and not just easily spreadsheeted) data to plan further instruction. Small “performance” stipends or the old Career Ladder system in Arizona may reward those habits, but they don’t put more hours in the day. Administrators and others often criticize teachers for working behind their closed classroom doors, but maybe we have good reasons for closing our doors.  Give us the resources to open them, and attitudes might change.  [See my blog entry "Hoarders"for the analogy I use to describe the professional knowledge hiding in our classrooms.]

Money is not time, but money and imagination could change the system to reveal more of our invisible data, if the public is really interested in getting beyond spreadsheets and bar charts. If all they want is spreadsheets and bar charts, then I suppose we can keep creating those, too. But don’t be surprised if my classroom door is closed the next time you pass by my room.  I’m trying to hear my students think.


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Thanks for all the thoughtful comments.


Mike, thanks for validating my conflicting feelings about always harping on the time issue. I get irky about it, because it's an obstacle I can't seem to overcome, no matter how smart I try to be about paper load. And then sometimes I feel bad because I think I pass off that culture of toomuchtodonotenoughtime to my students as well. I envy teachers who can keep things streamlined, efficient. But even they often don't have the time to do the deep planning, assessment, reflection, collaboration and professional development that should really be happening. Many days I feel that if I could just get my head back into my classroom and keep it there I could do better.

Totally agree with everyone and especially with the quote from Mark. I will take "I posit that most of the data that good teachers collect about their students is invisible. An experienced, engaged teacher is data collection machine." to school and share with staff.

Mike is right with the critical point being time. What a thought is his plan were put in to action?

Truly love your closing thoughts. Thanks for sharing this post!

Very strong thinking. You hit on one critical point: time. I know we easily dismiss this as a "get over it" topic, it remains the elephant in the room. If I were in charge of a school system, I would assert that the top priority is to re-organize the calendar and to stop treating teaching like a part time job. I've blogged on this, before, so it's near and dear to me. I'd ask for the dollar amount to make at least some teachers 12 month employees, get the parties together, and figure out how to dig up the money. With the paid time, we can increase the accountability and outcomes. In the end, it is very difficult to get even results when some are volunteering their time and others cannot or will not. Great post...

Brilliant. Agree with Maren--these are nutrients, indeed. Thanks for a "thinker."

"I posit that most of the data that good teachers collect about their students is invisible. An experienced, engaged teacher is data collection machine." ...and everything after it... exactly!! This is why we need teachers in charge of these movements. When outsiders think of data, they do not understand that our whole flippin' day is about collecting just doesn't always fit nicely into business-model revenue-sheet style data collection.

You write about the "nutrients of time, energy, and data about students"--I love this phrase and way of thinking--indeed, that is what we need to nourish our teaching!

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