I was involved in a Facebook group discussion recently about the mandated use of classroom data walls. I was surprised by the strong angry and emotional reaction I had to the conversation. The end result was that I realized that such a mandate would cause me to become publicly vocal and perhaps even be a deal-breaker. (Disclaimer: after 20 years of teaching in public school, I now teach at an independent school, so this is not an issue for me—yet. But that tide may change at some point as I have heard some discussions about data.)
Truly, I thought this hurtful practice had died out after the huge push to implement several years ago, but I see classroom data walls are back with a vengeance. Even to the point being given fun names like Bump it Up wall. A Pinterest and a Google image search reveals thousands of ways to make “cute” data walls. One search for classroom data walls, limiting the results to the last year, yielded hundreds of results. Contrary to the public push against these a few years ago, many are now defending, and even celebrating, this practice as a viable path to improvement. This baffles me.
Because there was so much parent push-back a few years ago, especially from parents of children with exceptionalities, teachers came up with what they believe to be work-arounds such as posting collective data or averages of the entire class. But even displaying data in this form, such as how many pages the whole class has read or how much the class average has improved on a skill, do not do enough to protect the child who is the lowest on these measures. It can even serve to make the child a target of the more accomplished or competitive peers who just want to “win” at all costs—including the feelings of a classmate. Even if you believe they can’t identify the lowest performing child or that every child will feel a sense of accomplishment this way, trust me when I tell you they know the truth. Kids are not so easily manipulated.
As a former special education teacher, I saw myriad ways teachers humiliated students who were having difficulty grasping a concept. These data-shaming walls are just one more way to break a child’s spirit. Imagine if your teacher evaluation score were posted on a public chart—even with an alternate identifier—in the teacher’s lounge where you would see it every day. Even if your name is not on the chart, you and your peers know who falls where. How long do you suppose it would take before you avoided the teacher’s lounge or got that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach every time you entered? You would feel completely demoralized. And you’re an adult.
I got into this profession to teach, not humiliate, children, but I have seen it happen all too often. To this day, I vividly remember in third grade seeing charts displayed with who passed our weekly timed multiplication test. If you passed, you were allowed to free read during the weekly re-test. This went on for weeks until everyone passed. Imagine how that poor child felt who had to take that test for half the year before he passed. It’s unconscionable. How many schools implement the practice that a child who has some work to do or needs remediation must stay in from recess or miss an enjoyable school function or class? How on earth does that motivate a child? I had secondary school teachers who posted the class test scores and or passed papers back in order of highest grade to lowest grade. I saw friends hanging their head the longer it took for their paper to be handed back. How was that acceptable? These are but three of countless examples of these kinds of practices. In the end, these encourage, not only resentment, but needless competition between students. There is absolutely no educational value to this.
All of this being said, I am not opposed to data tracking and PRIVATE sharing of information with individual children for the purpose of setting personal SMART goals or the like. The issue is the baffling need to publicly display this information under the guise that it will motivate students. As an educational psychologist who has extensively studied and taught about motivation, I guarantee you that this serves absolutely no valuable educational purpose and serves only to dishearten.
Classroom data walls are yet another uninformed, ridiculous mandate stemming from misguided, often NON-EDUCATOR, educational reformers being sold to administrators as another way to demonstrate a “quick and easy” way to improvement. (This data displayed in the classroom is not the same as a school-wide data chart used privately by teachers to make educational decisions, although I question the value of these as well.) Aside from the fact that classroom data walls, even using masked identifiers, skirt the edges of legality (see FERPA law), there is little to no empirical evidence that classroom data walls promote improvement. As teachers, we need to band together to fight against these destructive data walls.
For those of you in the unfortunate position of being required to implement a data wall, I am providing several resources you could use to formulate your opposition. Some are research based, and some are opinions. I will add to this list as I find more resources to support this view.