When Data Walls Fail

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I want you to imagine something.

Imagine if your teacher evaluation scores (I don’t know about you, but we have yearly ones that are pretty big) were put on a big chart in the staff room. Like a Teacher Data Wall.

Let’s pretend we get scored on a scale of 1-4, and the board is divided up to say “2 or more” or “high flying 4’s!” or something of the kind.

Let’s say that all the teachers had their names up there for the world to see.

When Data Walls Fail

Do you have this in your mind? At first glance what do you notice?

Well, I notice (hypothetically speaking) that Jane must be doing great because she is a 4. Joe isn’t doing so well, he is waaay down there barely on the chart.

Sue seems to be trying but poor thing still is just a 2.

Thank goodness I’m a 4 because I think I would cry if they put my name up there under a 2 for all to see.

Now, some people may wish this were a thing (I sure hope it isn’t anywhere though) because they may think “Well, if Joe is so bad, he deserves to have us know! Maybe that will shape him up! Maybe we can weed out the bad teachers! Maybe it will motivate the low ones!”

Or you may say… let’s just recognize the high ones! That may motivate the ones not there yet! We can just leave their names off altogether if they aren’t a 4!

I understand that circumstances for adults are much different than for children. However, I wanted to start out with that hypothetical situation, and then take it to another hypothetical situation.

Now Imagine This

Now imagine you are 5. Or 7. Or 10. Just imagine you are a child.

Your teacher has a big poster with the names of who reads the most minutes at home, or who knows all of their alphabet or multiplication facts.

Your friends are getting a lot of their names on that board, or stars, or boxes colored in.

They are excited.

They talk about it a lot.

Sometimes they even get prizes.

You wish you could be up there as a letter superstar, or star reader, but even though you try, it is hard.

Because, well…..

Maybe you don’t have books at home and your parents won’t take you to the library or read to you.

Maybe you are learning to speak the language so learning letters and sounds may take some time. It doesn’t mean you are “low” and not worthy of the wall.

Maybe you have never been to preschool so this is all new to you. This doesn’t make you “low” – you simply haven’t had the same exposure as your peers.

Maybe you worry about things happening at home. Maybe there are bad things going on and you don’t get much to eat or much sleep.

You feel bad because you want to be up high on that wall.

Your teacher says when everyone can do it you will have a party.

But you can’t do it yet and that feels really bad. Is the whole class waiting on you?

Do they think you are dumb?

A Personal Example:

When I was in grade school, one of my teachers (several actually) had walls dedicated to showing who read the most minutes at home, and who had the most timed math tests taken, etc.

Now, luckily, I did very well in school and I managed to stay on top of those walls (in elementary school at least).

In fact, I remember one student and I were always competing with one another for the top spot. Now to us, maybe it was fun.

All I know is that I was not really caring about WHAT I was learning, but rather WHERE I was on the wall.

I also remember knowing that Todd (not his real name) was always at the bottom.

Everyone knew it. He knew that everyone knew it and he started to turn it into a “cool thing” to be on the bottom by developing an attitude of not caring he was there, and refusing to try to move.

As I look back now, I know that was a defensive mechanism to avoid seeming like he was “dumb.”

Todd had a reading disability and it was a fight for him to complete the tasks. This wall of progress didn’t motivate him, but discouraged him instead.

Why Am I Writing This? 

I get it. Many schools require data walls.

I also know that no teacher would do something to intentionally make a child feel bad (at least I hope not!)

I also am a teacher and I know that we must keep track of our student’s progress. I also know that sometimes class goals and whole group progress monitoring can be a good thing.

I am not “calling out” anyone by listing examples. My personal story isn’t saying those teachers were wrong, but rather just showing a different perspective and sharing a memory.

I have many teacher friends who have data walls. Do I think they are bad teachers? NO, certainly not!

I know they are either required to have them, or have a system that may work for them. Many teachers have moved from having names to numbers, or other things that keep it more private.

I am a huge proponent of student’s knowing their progress and setting goals. I just think there are ways to do it that don’t call them out in front of their peers.

For example, personal data folders that only the student sees, while the teacher may have master graphs in a teacher binder to look at all kids at once.

Or maybe a whole class goal that encourages 100% participation, but allows for wiggle room. For example “Let’s read ___ minutes this month at home!” can motivate ALL kids to help and get excited, but if someone isn’t participating as much, the whole class isn’t looking at and depending on them for the reward (if a reward is given, I know not all data walls have rewards).

I am mainly writing just as a deeper look into this practice.

I don’t approach this with the idea that I am right, but rather the thought that I am learning and exploring what feels right for my students.

For me, a public data wall isn’t that.

When it makes my students feel bad or stressed, to me, that is a data wall failure.

A data wall can tell me how they perform, but it cannot tell me their thoughts, feelings or motivation.

For others, it may be something that works, their current students may respond differently, and maybe it doesn’t make them feel that way.

I would love to hear about your system and why you do (or don’t) love it. Leave a comment and let me know!

For more classroom articles, check out The Truth about Teaching Kindergarten and 10 Things Your Kindergarten Student Wants You To Know

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  1. You are right on the money here! When I first started teaching, I made my cute little posters just like the other teachers. That year I had the sweetest little girl who just could not get those sight words. She tried. There was no way she was ever going to get to the top of that pretty little dumb chart. So one afternoon I ripped it down. It was so liberating!! Some of my peers still have those cute little charts and it might work for them, but it’s just not for me.

    1. I love how you are noticing that what works for you may not work for your teaching peers and vice versa – you are totally right there, that we are all different in our teaching styles and what works for some doesn’t work for others. I LOVE how you noticed that the girl in your class really needed you to take that chart down that year – and that it was so freeing for you as well! πŸ™‚ I hope you have a great school year this year as well.

  2. AMEN!!!! I am also being required to display data wall and am really struggling!!! We spend so much collecting and analyzing …that we hardly need lessons and activities.. !!! They are once again taking the joy out of my passion to TEACH CHILDREN… I would love to see research based data that this works !!!!! I loved coming across your title WHEN DATA WALLS FAIL…. because they do time and time again… I say we put all of the “higher ups” on display for all to see!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. You brought up so many points that I feel so strongly about. I couldn’t agree with you more! What is in the best interest of our students is not always in the “districts” mind unfortunately.

  4. When I left the profession a few years back, the district I was leaving had just decided to resume using data walls. In that district, teachers were required to post monthly data charts for a grade level goal- outside the classroom door so that parents could access them. In addition, pre and post instruction data graphs were displayed. Though no student names were posted, parents and students knew who was where. I found the whole micro-management and focus on business-related practices a bit much. So much time was spent collecting, recording, analyzing, & presenting data each week – it was easy to lose the excitement of planning and introducing new units of study…

    1. Hi J.J! I totally agree with you that sometimes the time spent on all of the collecting, recording and analyzing can take away from the most important work we have – planning for and teaching our students! So while data of course has a place, I would hate for our profession to become all about it. Thanks for sharing your experience too! πŸ™‚

  5. I agree Alex. We were just informed this week that we need to have data walls in our classrooms. I had the same concern. I wouldn’t want my own child’s data on display. Even if the child’s name isn’t used and they have a number, color, or a symbol, that child still can see whether or not they’re in the group with the students who are always performing well or not performing well. I don’t agree with this practice. Everything that’s new and trendy in education, doesn’t mean it’s effective or good practice.

    1. I love LOVE that you mention how just because something is new and trendy doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. We definitely need to always take a step back and thoroughly examine things to decide if they truly are best for kids or not! πŸ™‚ Sometimes that looks different from classroom to classroom, depending on kids, but I agree with you that in this case, the kids know their group or level, and figure it out pretty quickly, even if names aren’t used.

      1. I agree with you both, but I keep trying to find a solution to comply and stay true to doing what’s best for kids! I asked administration if I could use a data binder, the answer was sure however a data display was also necessary!! Any suggestions? I am open for a creative solution!

        1. Hmmm – does the display have to be accessible and in the face of kids? Or could it be in a location that is more for you instead of them? Such as a wall by your teacher desk, etc?

  6. Hi Alex,

    I found this a VERY interesting read. I completely agree with you on this. I am not a big believer in displaying kids personal achievements for the world to see, especially by other parents.
    Three years ago my school introduced ‘Personal Learning Goals’ and I actually really like them. We have a display up of balloon houses from Up! (I have a Disney classroom this year) flying through the clouds. On the front are our personal goals – differentiated for all students. Some might be working on learning numbers to 10, some to 5, some to 3. Some might be sight words or letters. I introduced it to my kiddies as a way to help us all have something to work on and a goal to have. Their names are on the back so no one can tell who’s is who’s and I told the kids that it is up to them whether they share their goal with someone else. I keep all the grades, checklists and progress records in my own diary and no one sees these apart from admin in data meetings.
    We regularly revisit our goals and celebrate when anyone achieves their goal. The key is to make all goals achievable so every child can experience success and be celebrated. They visit the principal and show off, wear a badge around the school and are recognised on parade.
    This has been a huge success because it has been used across the entire school and the school community has embraced it. Kind of a way of having a data/progress display personalised for each child where no one can degrade them or embarrass them. Works brilliantly at my school!

    Nerida πŸ™‚

    1. Hi Nerida! I love how the students in your room take responsibility for their goals and have the option of sharing them if they wish! That gives them a lot of choice and probably motivation too! It is great when communities can come together like that without the stress or pressure of having data up that may potentially make people embarrassed. Thanks so much for sharing what your school does! P.S – your classroom theme sounds wonderful! How fun! πŸ™‚

  7. In my world our “data wall” is used to determine best intervention for kiddos who need it, the only people who see the data are the building admins, building educational coach, Title reading teachers, intervention specialists and grade level teachers who work with the kids – is this the same that you are speaking of or are some data walls on display for all to see?

    I find your points very interesting and aligned with the PBIS (no clip charts/colored slips? philosophy…

    1. Hi Lisa! I am speaking about the data that is displayed in front of peers. For example their name on a board or wall if they can say all their letters or complete their math facts, or their names categorized where their peers can see them. The data you are speaking of is not what I am referring to, as that data is private and only for teachers and instructional teams. We use that data as well to drive our instruction. I am mainly speaking of data that is shown to other peers or more publicly. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! πŸ™‚

  8. This is such a great and honest post! I used students data folders and let the students graph their results, which they loved. I agree that class data walls can be discouraging to students.

    1. Thank you so much Brittany! I agree that individual data folders are great! My kids also love graphing their results. πŸ™‚

  9. I think this post is incredible Alex. You raised so many good points in a way that is sensitive to everyone who uses a Data Wall, or those who does no use Data Walls. I do not use data walls. It has never even occurred to me actually. My school has our students displayed on a data pocket chart grades K-4 in the conference room according to easyCBM results. Each grade has their own color coded pocket chart (green, yellow, red). However, they are only rolled down for our 20% or 100% meetings, and then are rolled back up for most of the year. This is also only for teachers to track student progress. The students do not see where s/he may fall on the chart, or where s/he is in relation to peers.

    Kindergarten Planet

    1. Thank you so much Suzanne! I really appreciate your kind words. Your school sounds similar to how mine does it. We also track progress across grade levels, but it is only rolled down in the conference room when we are meeting about it and is never displayed openly.

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