If you are reading this you are likely to be someone who follows trends in education. Someone who tries to stay focused on the Big Picture. Who sniffs the air for signs of the zeitgeist. Who basically just likes to know what the conversation in education is all about.
If you work in a school, you know how much trends can matter. But you also know that the evil twin of trend is trendy, the bane of every educator’s existence. Any of us can look back and count off the trends in our work that seemed interesting, even reasonably worth looking into, before they morphed into trendiness and then dissolved into irrelevancy—but not before they had absorbed hours of our time and psychic energy: a bit of software, an enchanted acronym that concealed a magic bullet, a leadership buzzword that would make it all so simple.
The evil twin of trend is trendy, the bane of every educator’s existence.
One of the trends right now is data. There’s Big Data, which masquerades in the U.S. these days as blanket regimes of standardized testing designed to achieve goals that often look more political than educational, frequently with a dose of profit for testing or textbook purveyors thrown in. And there is less spectacularly scaled data, that can actually be useful on the school and even classroom level—as long as someone has the expertise to collect and analyze it cleverly and strategically.
The data challenge, in my experience, which for a while involved actually being a school’s “data guy,” is determining what question you are trying to answer or what problem you are trying to solve. It’s too easy and not really very strategic, despite the occasional utility of the procedure, to start by looking at the data one has and then trying to figure out what it might show. In broad strokes you can, for example, take your standardized testing data and your grade data and your gross outcomes data—graduation rates, for example—and “discover” that you have an achievement gap of some sort, gender or race or such. But you knew or at least suspected that already.
The real question to be answered here is “Why?”, and this requires much finer sifting and sorting, with more inputs and factors considered than most schools or districts have either ready access to or the professional knowledge to collect in useful forms.
Data can tell us many things, but usually it takes more than a spreadsheet or files full of numbers to get to important information we need our data to give us. First and foremost, it takes better questions, smarter questions that take form only when framed within big, urgent problems, issues that really matter to us as we seek to serve our students. Incidentally, there is a great new book by Anthony Bryk, Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul LeMahieu, Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better that lays out the science of school improvement, whose steps begin with better, more precise problem definition.
These days I work for the Independent Curriculum Group, a consortium of close to eighty schools seeking to become more effectively collaborative and more adept in the development of curricula and assessment and in framing and resolving attendant issues. One particular “issue” that comes to the fore in nearly every conversation I have, is that of who is responsible for planning this kind of work and whose job it is to see that it is accomplished. Corollaries include questions about the capacities, accountability, and authority of the drivers—those people we often refer to in schools as “change agents”—and their delegates.
These are big questions, not often answered very well internally by schools and seldom put directly to change agents and other academic administrators themselves. In the interest of developing some data that would be useful to our individual schools and to our collective work, we’ve created a Survey on Academic Leadership that we are inviting anyone who works in K–12 education to take. Gentle reader, this includes you.
At the Independent Curriculum Group we hope that in this survey our questions are defined well. We also hope that the survey is a vehicle whose results, when widely shared, can help us move beyond the merely trendy toward identifying which trends in 2015 education are authentically valuable as well as the skills and resources we need to incorporate them into our practice.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Lauren Manning.