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Benefits of Database Analysis Weighed

Ohanian Comment: Isn't the autopsy metaphor great? I know something about autopsies and I can tell you they are a great metaphor for the plan described below. I grew up in the home of the Placer County deputy coroner. I heard a lot of autopsy reports given over the phone. At age 12, I learned to type so I could help my dad by typing death certificates.

Judging a teacher's "skill" and the value of her lesson plans by whether or not her students correctly answer multiple choice questions about commas in apposition--and then distributing as holly writ the lesson plans of the teacher whose students scored highest--will surely be the death knell of education, qualifying for an autopsy and a death certificate. As any honest teacher will tell you, commas are a shifty lot: the comma the kid places in the right place today may well pop up in three wrong places tomorrow.

These people admit they're building lesson plan models on dead skills: Right now, reviewing test data is like doing an autopsy.

I mention the comma in apposition because, as a third grade teacher, I got in a big faculty room fight about whether we should follow the basal reader teachers manual and teach it. A second grade teacher joined in and said she taught it--to get her kids "ready" for Grade 3.

First, I burst into tears. Next, I ignored the comma and put the basals in the closet.

I kept phony lesson plans in my top desk drawer, in case I was out sick. Once, knowing ahead of time that I'd be out, I contacted the sub, whose son was in the class. She said, "Can I skip the lesson plan and do a real lesson--like you do?"

Whom do we think we're kidding?

And by the way, my third graders scored very well on the grammar section of the end-of-year standardized test--even though I hadn't presented formal lessons on any of the "skills." Those multiple choice tests, after all, require proofreading skills. And kids who read a lot are much better at proofreading than kids who don't. Yes, of course, skills are important but this so-called performance data is going to measure nothing but piffle. And even there, it won't be reliable. Whenever anybody tries to sell you performance data management, be very very wary.

My dad died a few days ago at age 96. Suddenly his Deputy Coroner's badge, in my top desk drawer, takes on new meaning.

Since this is a technology story, the punch line, of course, is that the future is now.

Schools pressed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act already are tapping into a futuristic information network described by Independence administrators Russ Brock and Ed Streich.

This is not about students using computers. This is about teachers, principals and parents measuring how well those students are doing long before they take the high-stakes tests that districts are judged by.

The tricky part, technology experts say, is deciding just how soon teachers will be ready for this:

A teacher grading an assignment would enter the grades into a computer database. The assignment would be tailored to measure whether students understood one or more skills that ultimately could be on state tests.

The teacher could sort student progress by each skill. Is everyone learning long division?

Principals could sort information to check progress within one class, or across an entire grade level. Administrators could check progress across the entire district. They could find teachers whose classes are doing well in certain areas and direct other teachers to them for help.

Brock described a Web page where teachers with successful lesson plans could send them to other teachers in their learning group, school or districtwide.

"Right now, reviewing test data is like doing an autopsy," Streich said. "We're taking information (from Missouri's state performance test) and working with it after the students have already left."

But by building a performance database during the school year, he said, "we have a chance to make a difference in the learning."

Education Week, in a recent national survey of schools and technology, determined that many states are seeing districts divert technology investments toward similar data-management systems.

"We're seeing a major philosophical shift," Education Week's project editor, Kevin Bushweller, told reporters. "A decade of investment in instructional technologies resulted in too little achievement."

So districts are turning to "data analysis," he said.

Districts like Independence most often say they are moving forward carefully, testing programs and involving teachers in the decision-making processes.

"There is so much potential in this," Brock said. "(But) we know we have to take small steps."

Administrators have to consider the comfort level and the time demands on teachers in using grade-book programs, said Bob Winkler, the Shawnee Mission School District's coordinator of assessment and testing.

Shawnee Mission also is moving carefully.

"It can be potentially harmful if time is spent entering data opposed to actually instructing students," Winkler said. "It's a careful balance."

Teachers worry not only about the time burden, but about the security and reliability in Web-based tracking systems, said Wendy Biggerstaff, a special-education teacher in Independence who is a National Education Association representative.

— Joe Robertson
Kansas City Star


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