Sunday, June 28, 2009

Data, Data, Who's Got the Data?

Mondays -- I hated Mondays. Not just because they were the first work day after a weekend at home, either. No, for the last two years, they were not just Mondays, but PLC Mondays, the day our newest contract designated for tacking on fifty minutes of Professional Learning Community activities. Fifty minutes of manipulating numbers obtained by giving quarterly common assessments to all students taking, say, seventh grade science, or eighth grade ELA, fifty minutes of looking at data, comparing students scores, discussing instruction that preceded those scores, planning instruction to improve those scores.

I had heard of professional learning communities before PLC arrived in Windsor. This PLC, however, was a purchased program from Chicago. It was not about discussions among colleagues who respected each others' backgrounds and opinions; rather, it was enforced dialogue about improving student scores between people who did not necessarily respect each other. Rather, we tolerated each other because we happened to work in the same building, in the same department, on the same core team.

Good discussions about pedagogy happened, despite our mixed loyalties and twisted intentions. We did observe trends among our students, depending on how we taught certain concepts. We devised plans of action to reteach some skills, to reinforce material that didn't seem to be well understood. We sometimes talked about teaching without acting as if what we did in our classroom was secret and perhaps shameful.

During these valuable discussions, though, I always felt uneasy because of what I saw as flawed, almost certainly questionable data. To obtain information about students' comprehension of what they read, we had to ask them to read material that was not at their independent reading level, was not about their topics they chose, material in which they probably had no interest. Then we asked multiple choice questions, some of which required students to use particular skills and strategies we had been focusing on. We could not ask our students, however, to read too much text; we could not ask them to answer more questions than they could manage in 45 minutes. We might end up with a data base of responses with only five questions testing inferential skills, among the twenty questions that involved a variety of other comprehension skills. Five items asked about two small texts, do not seem to give a good indication of whether a student "gets" the idea of combining text evidence with outside knowledge to draw inferences. I was not the most conscientious student during my Tests and Measurements class at Syracuse, but that does not seem like a good sample. And yet, talking about our flawed analysis still yielded important agreements about classroom practice or helpful suggestions for the teacher just beginning a career.

PLC Mondays were accompanied by requirements that we write up our discussions, write up our data analyses, write up up our plans of action. These tasks wore down my enthusiasm for the process. I got confused by many new acronyms and forms, slowed down by technical difficulties with files and folders on the shared drive, irritated because some colleagues were more accessible, more amenable to the process than others.

To complicate the PLC initiative, there were other movements afoot. Balanced literacy, a new twist on ELA for the middle school, required much intellectual and persuasive energy. Countering arguments and attitudes was an additional source of Monday afternoon stress. On some Mondays, after dealing with students' emotional backlash from weekends spent in dysfunctional families, I had nothing left for these PLC sessions.

I wonder what would happen if schools got together for PLC in units bigger than districts, perhaps facilitated by BOCES or NYSED. Would it be easier for teachers who didn't have to work in the same buildings to discuss classroom practices and their consequences more honestly and authentically? Talking with building colleagues involves ego, past history, competition, cliques. What would have to change for better quality PLC sessions to happen?

Also, are there better ways to find out whether students are understanding the processes and skills cultivated in an ELA classroom than to give a paper and pencil, multiple choice reading comprehension test? Should ELA classrooms be treated in a different way because they involve processes rather than content knowledge? But wait a minute...even in the so-called "content" areas, aren't habits of mind more important than knowledge that can become obsolete so quickly? So how can discrete data like answers to multiple choice questions be helpful? Is PLC really about reflection and collaboration more than hard data?

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