A Study Suggests Kansas Schools Rely On Data At The Expense Of Teacher Knowhow

Oct 14, 2019

Information’s great. But what about insight?

A fresh University of Kansas study contends state educators put too much emphasis on data and too little on the savvy and experience of teachers.

Data-driven decision have been the go to buzzwords at Kansas schools for years. The concept presses schools to rely on test scores when plotting the interventions needed — think an extra 30 minutes in a student's schedule to home in on a math lesson — for plotting a path to student success.

The researchers argue that test scores are the only thing all schools use, ignoring the instincts of teachers and unique situations of each student. Instead of being data-driven, they’re data-dependent.

The study suggests calls for a smarter balance between the first-hand insight of teachers and numbers drawn from test scores and other measures.

“We are losing teachers’ ability to use far more information about what they know makes for a good education for different types of kids because we’re just reducing the kids down to a number,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, an associate professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

Switch To Data

Using test scores to evaluate students has been a near constant in education. But what that testing looked like was often different from classroom to classroom. The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act began dramatically emphasized tests that are comparable across schools and the country.

That — combined with new technology — led to a rapid expansion of data on students.

“There’s a lot of power in that capacity,” said Jason Grissom, who studies education policy at Vanderbilt University.

In 2007, Kansas began piloting a data-heavy approach called Multi-Tiered System of Supports, or MTSS. It’s been used to devise improvement plans for struggling students.

Since that launch 12 years ago, it’s gradually expanded across the state. MTSS is more a framework than a program — educators continually test students and adjust plans accordingly.

In 2013, Garden City Public Schools was receiving state training on implementing MTSS. KU researchers documented the shift in a newly released study that found teachers’ knowhow was “continually marginalized.”

The Problem

Test scores were considered infallible while teacher observations were dismissed.

Some teachers disagreed with the interventions suggested by the test. State MTSS consultants told the teachers to stick to the recommendation. When teachers wanted to change the interventions, consultants said the only recourse was to retake the same test the teachers considered flawed.

Ideally, test scores would be used to inform decisions. State consultants told the teachers in Garden City that their input wasn’t needed. Only the test itself mattered.

“Good teachers are rightly saying those standardized tests are part of the story, but not all of the story,” said Don Stull, one of the study’s authors and a professor emeritus at KU. “And if we don’t try to bring all that we know … then we’re not doing the best we can for those children.”

Education experts says sidelining teacher observations could lead to interventions that are ultimately harmful. A student might score poorly on a math assessment because they’re not engaged with the work. An attentive teacher might decided the student needs more challenging assignments.

But the data alone would recommend giving the student more remedial work, boring them even more.

That takes the teacher out of teaching, the study said. It also hurts teacher morale, a danger in a profession struggling with recruitment and retainment.

“There’s really been a deprofessionalization of teaching,” said Jennifer Ng, the lead author of the study.

Experts say that schools across the country have too often dismissed teachers’ judgments in favor of test scores. And it’s a problem schools have begun recognizing.

“It’s absolutely something schools have been struggling with,” said Laura Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation. “We’re hearing a lot of growing awareness that this narrow focus is problematic.”

Finding Balance

Kansas’ MTSS team says those early attempts were about bringing Kansas teachers on board to a more uniform system. Instead of teachers having dozens of different approaches, MTSS would bring teachers around an effective, agreed-upon system.

But shortly after the rollout in Garden City, the state began to shift its approach. In 2015, the state’s board of education released a new set of goals for Kansas schools. Social and emotional growth for students received more emphasis. High school graduation rates were set as a new marker of success alongside test scores.

The 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act — the replacement to No Child Left Behind — also put less emphasis on test scores.

Now Kansas educators are trying to find a balance between test scores and teacher expertise.

“The assessment is just a tool to say do we need to look at a certain area,” said Linda Wilkerson, the co-director of MTSS for the Kansas Department of Education. “It isn’t the answer. It’s the question.”

Garden City Public Schools blames much of its initial problems outlined in the study on the growing pains that come with a new policy. The district says that since the MTSS rollout in 2013, the school district has included teachers’ voices.

But school districts are still doubling down on data-driven decision making. Education experts say schools should be doing that, so long as teachers are involved and trained in how to use all that information.

Wichita Public Schools says to do that it has added more “data dives” — days dedicated to teachers and staff working through the numbers. As the district has become more data-heavy, those long days are vital to avoiding information overload and defaulting to a program’s canned intervention.

Patricia Burch, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, said finding that balance between test scores teacher voices is still a challenge. But schools are realizing the need to get that balance right.

“We’re coming back to a kind of middle ground,” she said, “where we agree it’s important but it’s not as heavy handed.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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