How ‘data walls’ in classrooms humiliate kids

(Caledwell County Schools)
About Data Walls      (Caledwell County Schools)

A long time ago I had a math teacher at West Miami Junior High School who changed the seating arrangement in my class every week according to how well each of her students did on weekly exams. Given that math was  not one of my better subjects, this weekly exercise generally left me mortified with my seat assignment. It did nothing to spur me to do better, as it was presumably intended.

Today’s version: data walls, where teachers are making lists of all kinds of data — very often student test scores and grade data — and putting them up for display so everybody can revel in the glory of data. The use of “data” to “drive instruction” has become a mantra among many school reforms in recent years, and, as one manifestation, teachers in states across the country are being encouraged to create these data walls. They are even getting professional development in how to create them. Some include the names of students — even kindergarteners — while some don’t.

Posting list of various student achievements is nothing new, of course. Honor roll lists have been taped to walls in schools for many years, as have charts displaying where high school seniors have been accepted to college. Charts showing what child has read which books is another popular wall posting in classes. While there are arguments for and against such exercises, increasingly these data walls include lists of  all children in a class or a grade with data points about their achievement. It’s hard to rationalize using a “data list” that ends up humiliating low achievers (as humiliation is rarely a great motivation technique). Even lists that don’t include student names but show standardized test scores serve the purpose of elevating the importance of those tests and scores to very young children.

In some places, parents and teachers are getting tired of embarrassing kids. New England Public Radio reported earlier this month that teachers and parents have banded together in Holyoke, Mass. to petition schools officials to stop publicly displaying student achievements on classroom data walls. District superintendent Sergio Paez, who has been pushing schools to use more data, said that students are not supposed to be identified, but teachers said they feel pressure to do so.

The radio quoted Paula Burke, parent of a third grader, saying,

“This information is really public humiliation for children. If you think about a kid who is below level, they know exactly where they are on that chart with everyone else’s reading level, and whether other children know it or not, it really does a lot of damage to a child’s self esteem.”

The In These Times reported that Agustin Morales, an English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke, said she thinks data walls are mean, but she has felt pressure to create them. This story said:

One of his top students did poorly on a standardized test in November and found her name at the bottom of the data wall. Afterward, in a writing assignment for class, she “wrote about how sad she was, how depressed she was because she’d scored negatively on it. She felt stupid.”

“So why do I hate data walls?” he continued. “Because of how she felt that day. She felt worthless. She felt like she wasn’t as good as other people.”

A story published a few months ago on the Scholastic Web site, written by a teacher under this headline: “Becoming One With Data Walls In Your Classroom,” started like this:

Have you heard the words, “DATA, DATA, DATA” in your sleep recently? In all of my 25+ years of teaching, never has there been such an emphasis placed upon data as I have seen in the last couple of years. Back in the Stone Age when I first started teaching, my thoughts regarding data were centered around grading tests and student work, transferring those grades to a grade book, and creating an honor roll. Fast forward to 2013, and my thinking has changed. Now, when data is mentioned, I think of external data (information from my New Jersey state assessments, i.e. NJASK) and internal data (information from class and grade/content specific assessments). I think of how data drives instruction not only for my students, but for the students in my district, state, and even the country. It affects the way instruction is delivered in the classroom.

Here’s one of the comments underneath the story:

October 29, 2013 at 9:38 p.m.
Carolyn
Someone tell me how covering the classroom walls with this data is a better idea than pictures, sentence starters, words of encouragement, charts and graphs of historical importance, student artwork, multiplication tables, bar graphs of favorite books, imagination grabbers, thought-provoking ideas, scientific discoveries, pictures of important people, student projects, photos of the class doing, learning, pictures of animals, interactive bulletin boards, classroom birthdays, seasonal pictures, class schedules, math facts, history facts, reading facts and anything else that may foster a love of learning.

Good point, Carolyn.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 14