Invisible Data

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification

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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

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.



Amethyst Hinton Sainz is National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts, and is constantly trying to live up to that standard! This year she will begin teaching at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona as an interventionist. She has taught junior high ELD and high school English in Arizona for 25 years. She has been a Stories from School blogger since 2012. Amethyst’s alma maters are Blue Ridge High School, the University of Arizona and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led her toward the College of Education, and she soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel her throughout her career. Her love of language, literature, and culture led her to Bread Loaf for her master's in English Literature. She is a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for her. As a board member of the Mesa NBCT Network, she works with other NBCT’s to promote this powerful process throughout the district. She supports candidates for National Board Certification, and loves seeing teachers realize and articulate their teaching and leadership power! She enjoys teaching students across the spectrum of academic abilities, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education. Last year she had the privilege of running our school garden, and will really miss that this year. She is currently learning more about social and racial justice and is striving to be an antiracist educator. She lives in Mesa, Arizona with her family. She enjoys time with them, as well as with her vegetable garden, backyard chickens, and the two dogs. She also enjoys reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), kayaking, camping, and travel, among other things.

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