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What's Your School's Data Story?


Jessica Cuthbertson


In my first post, I wrote about three ways to "fight fair" while tackling test-driven school cultures and high-stakes accountability head-on.

Advocacy, opting out, and leading at the local level are three proposed solutions. Another way to "fight fair" involves a different type of school data collection: the creation of a true data story.

In my district, at the beginning of each school year, we spend a significant amount of time talking about our "data stories." A dictionary definition of the word story yields the following: "a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse or instruct the reader or hearer." In truth, our "data stories" are simply a collection of spreadsheets with the same annual standardized exam data, disaggregated in every possible configuration.

But what if we truly wrote and shared data stories each year? How might these narratives shift the culture and collaboration in our schools?

Despite 21st-century tools and social media outlets, so much of what we do in the teaching and learning business is still invisible, shrouded from those outside our classroom walls and school building doors. Standardized testing results are sometimes one of the few published aspects of a school's "performance." But these results are merely a short chapter (or footnote) in a school's data story.

A robust narrative would truly instruct the staff, students, and community the school serves. It would speak of successes and failures honestly, and open up a dialogue for the sequel—the following year's narrative.

Such a story might contain first-hand accounts and interviews, video and audio clips, and portfolios of learning for each student. It would be rife with teacher reflections that include the risks taken and results yielded in various classroom experiments. It would tell tales of students solving problems, asking questions, engaging in rich discussions, and thinking critically across content areas and contexts. It would detail data on attendance and attrition. It would document goal setting and growth. It would unearth sub-plots of interruptions to instruction: fire drills, assemblies, bloody noses and broken hearts. There would be a whole chapter (or more) dedicated to character and conflict resolution.

And yes, there would be numbers—but the numbers would be buried in the many narrative strands of each student and staff member's journey of learning.

If you truly told the data story of your school or classroom what would it say? Would it mirror the standardized testing data or reveal much more? If we were asked to tell our students' data stories completely, in unabridged form, would there be any room for falsification or fictitious accounts?

Let's start telling the whole data story.

Jessica Cuthbertson serves as a Center for Teaching Quality "teacherpreneur," dividing her time between teaching 6th grade literacy at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora, Colo. and supporting solutions-oriented efforts to improve Colorado's schools.

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