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A Culture of Numbers, Spreadsheets, and Accountability

with 3 comments

Yesterday I was one of several speakers at a mini-conference sponsored by a New Mexico agency whose sole purpose is to raise the reading achievement scores of the student body of low performing skills. My piece was to present on the Growth Mindset (the interest of the agency in Growth Mindsets was due to its potential to raise test scores – e.g., see

What I was most stuck by, during this mini-conference, was the embracing of and joy in reporting the rising test scores and achievement scores of students. The two other speakers, one an administrator with that New Mexico agency and the other a principal, had slide after slide with numbers, percentages, and spreadsheets. The audience clapped and cheered at these reports, at spreadsheets with countless columns and rows of data, at images of whiteboards filled with numbers, at pictures of storage rooms filled with shelf after shelf of loose leaf binders of scripted reading program materials. I sat there feeling like an alien in this culture of tests, data, and accountability.

As I watched these presentations, several questions crossed my mind:

  • Did the initiatives help raise students’ interest in and enjoyment of reading?
  • Do the students, themselves, care that their achievement scores increased?
  • The scores of a student who went from a 3rd grade reading level to a 5th grade level was shown. Another student’s scores were shown who did not progress with reasons of why s/he did not do so (e.g., s/he was not assessed correctly in the first test). I wonder what these students would say about all of the reading interventions if they were personally asked.

I do believe that data can enhance the learning process if it is used as direct and immediate feedback to help both the educator and the learner get information about what the learner is doing well and what areas could be improved. But let’s not delude ourselves, these accountability systems have been designed by adults for adults. The students become numbers – a commodity in the adult games of NCLB, Race to the Top, and Annual Yearly Progress. Too often the individual children behind these numbers are not considered in these games centered on increasing the numbers.  My overriding question is then, “What are both short term and long term effects of this culture of testing, numbers, accountability and data on individual children?’

A recent study examined the affects of these initiatives on high poverty, low performing schools:

Anjale D. Welton, a professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois, explored how these performance mandates affected the school’s culture. During interviews, Welton and her colleagues found that the students felt “stigmatized” and “humiliated” by their school’s failing status.

Welton says her research suggests the school’s declining academic reputation also resulted in higher teacher turnover, denying students the consistent social support they need to become first-generation college students.

“This school was so focused on meeting the demands of state policy that it was unaware of the toll it was taking on the culture and climate of the school,” Welton argued. Rather than centering performance problems on students and teachers, policymakers should take into consideration the systemic inequities and larger sociopolitical contexts in which schools operate,” Williams said. “We also need to be more aware of the impact of labeling schools ‘high minority, high poverty’ and ‘low performing,’ because these descriptors convey deficit connotations.” (Teaching to the test may hinder college preparedness)

. . . and in closing, here is a quote from a favorite book of mine, The Little Prince:

Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: “What does his voice sound like?” “What games does he like best?” “Does he collect butterflies?”. They ask: “How old is he?” “How many brothers does he have?” “How much does he weigh?” “How much money does his father make?” Only then do they think they know him.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

May 15, 2015 at 9:13 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Jackie,
    I’m glad you were the alien in the room telling a different story. I would love to hear your talk to this roomful of number-lovers. Maybe your next blog post?

    Thanks for speaking for the children,

    Denise Krebs

    May 16, 2015 at 1:02 pm

  2. Thanks for your post. My school is data driven, which I don’t have a problem with, but there’s a definite danger in getting lost in it, and losing focus on the reason we are all here, students.

    I have found that students react very positively to be shown their own data and improvement (at least my 6th graders do). I showed one class their aggregate growth visually, and they went “oooh” in unison. It was a cool moment.


    May 19, 2015 at 7:33 pm

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