Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Data Immersion


What do the numbers mean, man?

In several different conversations lately, I have begun speaking by simply stating that I am not a numbers guy. They never meant much to me. That's not an indictment of myself by any means, but by this point in my life, I understand my limitations and do my best to push past them. Sometimes, however, I find that the pictures the numbers create are fascinating.

This post, as some of you might think, stems from the data analysis we have been doing with our staff of first marking period grade distributions, and it does; you can't spend as much time as I have looking at this data without wondering about it. However, watching Ron Eglash connect fractal geometry and indigenous populations worldwide also made me realize the important of visualizing numbers and data.

What we've been looking at is not who did what, but rather what the distributions tell us as we move forward. This is such a small sample, one marking period, to make any informed decisions about what the numbers mean in terms of instruction or assessment. However, with several marking periods of data, we will be able to really begin to answer these type questions:

  • Are the distributions what you thought they would be?
  • What does the whole grade average tell you about the grade distribution?
  • How might grade distribution inform you regarding strategies used for future instruction?
  • Identify similarities and differences. What are some reasons why there are similarities? Differences?
  • If two classes are significantly different, why is that?
  • If two teachers teach the same units, what accounts for the differences in grade distribution?
What are we really after?

The end result? We are aiming for reflection. We want teachers to be able to look at this empirical data and couple it with the anecdotal data they collect through interaction with students and content and be able to really flesh out what caused success or failure. Once they are doing this, how empowered they become!

Taking this from my perspective, it wasn't until I really began taking a look at the numbers of who was attending my workshops last year (70% from the middle school, only 30% from the high school) that I realized where my focus had to shift. The numbers helped me see the direction I needed to go in, rather than staying where I was comfortable and successful.

So now I play with numbers too, and it might not hurt as much as I thought.


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3 comments:

diane said...

Patrick,

Do the teachers get any guidance in analyzing the raw data?

A preponderance of lower level teachers at your workshops might mean that they are more comfortable with you personally; or, that they need more instruction because they are further behind than the higher level teachers; or that the higher level teachers already possess the knowledge or skills you are offering (unlikely, but possible); or because of a slew of other reasons.

Politician love to crunch numbers, and you know where that gets us!

diane

Patrick Higgins said...

Diane,

I am glad you brought these points up.

This time around, we weren't really looking to analyze because the sample was so small, but more to examine ideas about what we could use this data for in the future. Looking at grade distributions across several marking periods will give us better insight and let us examine trends. For example, if we look at students who ace the marking period, but do miserably on midterms and finals, what might we do instructionally to reverse that?

After surveying the staff mercilessly last year, I found that the main complaint from the high school was that the workshops were scheduled based on the middle school schedule, so they began too late. So I adjusted the times last spring to include every workshop at high school-friendly time slots (earlier). Same results.

What that told me was that I needed to focus not only my PD efforts on the high school, but also my efforts on getting the word out about what people were doing with the tools that we were equipping them with. It didn't hurt that we offered tablet PC's to any staff member who wanted one in July.

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