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Larry Efird: Data, a four-letter word

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Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

One of the biggest changes I have seen in education over the past 30-something years is the over-emphasis educators must place on data. Unfortunately, some teachers, as well as some schools, have been sacrificed on the altar of unflattering test scores and lackluster graduation rates. But have no fear. Could it be that data-driven instruction could be the miracle cure for all our woes? Too bad they didn’t ascribe to that philosophy when I was a kid. Maybe it would’ve helped me figure out how to successfully use a slide-rule.

Going to a meeting to discuss departmental scores can be intimidating when you already know your students did poorly on a benchmark test. The last thing you feel like doing is finding multiple ways to overstate the obvious. This feeling of vulnerability can be likened to how you’d feel walking through the mall in your pajamas. I’ve also compared it to getting a root canal, but at least during a root canal I have some Novocain to deaden the pain.

Call me old or old-fashioned, but sitting through a meeting about test data has never inspired me. It usually has the opposite effect.

But since data isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I’ve had to make my peace with it. And I finally figured out that the purpose of data is not just to show me how poorly my students did on a test, but to hopefully show me what they missed and how to fix it before they take the next test. That’s the idea in a nutshell, based on my limited experience in interpreting data.

One good thing about technology is that I can make out some quizzes and tests online now, and the program will automatically grade the quiz and sync it to an electronic gradebook. That would have sounded like something off “The Jetsons” back in the ’70s. But it really happens today. That gives me more time to do other important things like lesson planning — or maybe going to more meetings to discuss data.

I finally figured out that if a computer can grade and record a test, surely it must be able to break down the questions and show me how many students missed a particular question and give me a percentage of the class performance all at the same time. And wonder of wonders, it can! I learned this wonderful trick at our data meeting. So, that was another positive benefit I could focus on.

Anyone who used to average grades the hard way BC—Before Calculators — can fully appreciate electronic grading the way students who lived BC — Before Computers — can fully appreciate not having to use ink erasers and whiteout while hammering down on the keys of a manual typewriter. For that reason alone, I thought I was lucky when I got to take one of my mom’s old electric typewriters to college.

But getting back to data. Why is it so important, and how has it changed education and the teaching profession in a positive way? I’m still trying to figure that out because I haven’t fully learned the data lingo yet — or even how to confidently pronounce the word “data” with a long “a” or a short “a.” But if I’m being honest, it’s helped me see more clearly what my students’ strengths and weaknesses are. It’s also helped me see particular standards that my students are not reaching due to my lack of effective teaching or their lack of proficient learning. But still, too much data analysis makes me feel like I need a few days off just so I can find my way out of a maze.

The data revolution isn’t over yet, so I’ve accepted it. I know when I must resign myself to something I don’t fully understand and something I don’t fully appreciate. But I also know I’ve taught a bunch of kids over the past four decades without relying so heavily on data. If data could promise me that everyone I’d ever taught knows the difference between a subject and a verb, I’d be the first to say, “Sign me up.” But I don’t really need data to show me the answer to that because data will never replace common sense.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School.

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