Another Triumph For Campbell’s Law: Trapping Massachusetts Kids Behind “Data Walls”

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”-Donald Campbell

If any other superintendent is thinking of implementing a “data wall” policy, he or she needs to be fired immediately (boldface mine):

Last year, K-12 teachers in the Holyoke, Massachusetts school district were told to try a new tactic to improve test scores: posting “data walls” in their classrooms. The walls list students by name and rank them by their scores on standardized tests. This, they say administrators told them, would motivate children to try harder on those tests.

Teachers did so, many unwillingly. Agustin Morales, an English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke felt pressure to comply, but finds the data walls cruel. 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.”

In Holyoke, teachers and parents flooded a school committee meeting (the equivalent of a school board) on February 3 to protest the use of the walls. Paula Burke, the parent of a third-grader at Donahue, called them “public humiliation” for children. But the teachers in attendance were surprised to hear Superintendent Sergio Paez, whom they say directed them to start using the walls, blame teachers for putting the names up. Arguing that he never intended the boards to be public, Paez said during the meeting, “I’m asking teachers to do hundreds of things, but I’m not asking them to humiliate kids… It’s not whatsoever a directive from this administration to do this.”

In response to his comments, the teachers released copies of a PowerPoint presentation given to teachers and paraprofessionals for kindergarten (yes, kindergarten) through third grade at Kelly Elementary School in Holyoke on October 11, 2013—at which Superintendent Paez delivered the welcoming remarks. The slides, provided to In These Times by teacher activists, clearly show sample data walls with students’ first names and in some cases, last initials.

Morales says that administrators have been playing a “word game” for a while, saying that they “suggest” or “encourage” the use of data walls, but being cagey about whether they are mandatory or not. But teachers, he says, hear the message, “You better do this or you’re going to suffer for it.”

The administration seemed aware that the data walls could be controversial. Jenna Kaeppel, a seventh and eighth-grade English teacher at Holyoke’s Lt. Elmer J. McMahon Elementary School, says that the push for the walls has actually been hardest in kindergarten through third grade. “I think it’s intentional,” she says, because younger students are less likely to talk about it to their families.

Targeting elementary school students? Really? The administrators knew this was a bad idea (why else would they lie?), not motivated by teaching children, but by a desire to raise scores. Athenae makes an excellent point:

We forget how serious kids are, how much they take in and how much they remember. We assume, I think, that they’re not people just because occasionally they throw tantrums over stupid shit. And plenty of so-called adults, I think, conveniently forget what it was like being that age, when everything is out of your control and nothing makes any damn sense at all.

Let’s assume the intent truly was to motivate. Not everyone is motivated by the same tactics. One kid might get good and pissed off and be determined to make it to the top of that wall. Another will want to crawl in a hole and die. I can tell you, having been an elementary school kid once upon a time, I’d have been the latter, and I was pretty good at school. There would have been a lot of convenient stomachaches and “fevers.”

I’m certain today’s testing regime would have caused me to self-destruct spectacularly–and I was an accomplished student who made the system work. This is an awful thing to say, but if you’re a straight* kid today, school is an absolute nightmare compared to a generation ago. I only hope that the famed resiliency of children overcomes how repulsive we have made learning.

There’s nothing wrong with an annual test to determine how children are learning, but when testing becomes an end in and of itself, we’re not teaching anymore.

Campbell’s Law still holds. Regarding education, that’s a bug, not a feature.

*Without a doubt, LGBT kids have it better today (which in many places, still isn’t saying much at all).

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4 Responses to Another Triumph For Campbell’s Law: Trapping Massachusetts Kids Behind “Data Walls”

  1. delagar says:

    “LGBT kids have it better today” <– Better than LGBT kids did a generation ago, right? Not better than straight kids have it.

    Clarifying because I read it the other way the first time, and I was like WTF? Mike can't mean THAT.

  2. delagar says:

    I agree with the post, btw! Your posts on education are just excellent.

  3. Min says:

    Data walls are a particularly stupid idea, especially for elementary school. Why? Because, instead of motivating kids to do better, their likely effect is to define students in terms of their scores. Then poorly scoring kids would get the idea that they are dumb, and regard trying to do better as futile.

    Research indicating this likely outcome is hardly new.

  4. rijkswaanvijand says:

    That first time is exactly how I read it delagar, I’d have to call bs on that too.

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