Facing the Trilemma of Classroom “Data Walls”

Over the past few years I have visited many classrooms. In elementary schools, I have seen pasted on a wall or cork board, “data walls” that look like these:





Usually, students have numbers or aliases assigned to mask their identity. Of course, most students find out who is who.

Whether to use these “data walls” to spur individual students to improve their academic performance or have data displays for the entire class without individuals being noted or not have them at all in a classroom but use individual and class data only among teachers or school leadership teams has been debated in blogs, media, and journals for the past decade (see here, here, here, and here).

With the onset of the mantra “data driven instruction” largely stemming from the accountability features of the federal law, No Child Left Behind (2002), school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers have heard time and again the importance of gathering, analyzing, and using test data school-wide to improve instruction and in classrooms for students to plan individual strategies. Let’s call that “retail” data.

“Wholesale” data are school-by-school and district numbers that are aggregated  and sent to administrators, teachers, and parents. Those data may (or may not) become a basis for policy changes.

The focus on test scores since the early 1980s–remember A Nation at Risk report–has given critics the argument that NCLB further narrowed both curriculum and instruction by holding teachers and schools accountable for results. Concerned about the shame attending students’ low performance on district and state tests, teachers glommed onto “retail” data as a tool for improving student test scores with one outcome being the building of “data walls.”

And here is the trilemma that teachers face. On the one hand, most teachers prize a holistic view of student performance (e.g., intellectual, social, psychological growth) and find that tests students are required to take seldom capture the content, skills, and behaviors that teachers seek for their students. They want their students to grow in more ways than answering accurately multiple choice questions.

Teachers also embrace their professional obligations so they must give those tests.

Teachers also desire professional autonomy but  are held accountable by school, district, and state officials for their students reaching proficiency and higher on the reading and math portions of tests they must give. Consequences of low student scores fall upon teachers and students (e.g., scores are used to evaluate school, teacher, and student performance; rewards and penalties accompany scores on tests). Teacher autonomy to go beyond the test, such as to teach cooperation, respecting others, and making judgments, is seriously diminished given the available time.

Thus, the clash of values that teachers hold dear: holistic development of children and youth, obligation to mind what school and district officials require to be done in classrooms, and professional autonomy to do what is best for student learning.

When faced with such trilemmas, there is no one best solution to such a common but sticky situation. Teachers do what other professionals in medicine, law, criminal justice system, social work, and therapy do: because three highly prized values come into conflict and there is no way to fulfill one without harming the others, teachers figure out good enough compromises that partially fulfill what they seek. They know that accepting trade-offs among these cherished values is inevitable–they construct compromises. Then they manage these jerry-built compromises. In short, they satisfice to satisfy.

For schools and teachers, “data walls” are satisfices. It is a compromise that satisfies the value of professional autonomy–teachers create and tailor the displays of data in their classrooms. “Data walls” meet the professional obligation of doing what the district and principal wants, i.e., focusing on improving students’ grasp of content and skills on the state test. Finally, “data walls” touch at least the intellectual growth of students. Surely, these trade-offs do not fully satisfy all teachers–many do not have “data walls”–but it is a compromise that helps explains the spread of these classroom practices.

There are, of course, other uses of “data walls” that side-step the personal trilemma that classroom teachers face. Such “data walls” could be used at the school level by principals and leadership teams that use test data to pinpoint what skills need to be re-taught at particular grades or seek changes in instructional strategies that teams of teachers within or across grades could manage (see here and here).

Which way to use”data walls” at a time when public officials and educational policymakers prize student and school test scores is hardly a cut-and-dried problem with an easy solution. If teachers and administrators probe at the underlying values embedded in using “data walls” they will see the conflicting values and search for a compromise with trade-offs that satisfice and satisfy tailored to their particular district and school. Not an easy task but essential for improvement at a highly-charged moment in time when far too much is not only expected but laid upon public schools.












Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

6 responses to “Facing the Trilemma of Classroom “Data Walls”

  1. This article sidesteps privacy implications and potential FERPA violations inherent in data walls as well as harm to student psyches. A better analysis is offered here: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-09-07-tear-down-that-wall-why-data-walls-may-cause-more-harm-than-good Moreover the apparent theory behind data walls is that if students are made constantly aware that they are falling behind others in achievement, they will try harder, but I know little evidence to support the idea that low achievement is caused by a lack of effort.

    • larrycuban

      You are correct, Leonie, that I do not deal with the important issue of privacy. There are, of courses, teachers who struggle with using “data walls” that further violate student privacy. Such teachers would add that to the already existing trilemma they face. Thanks for raising this point.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    To follow up, the real bummer will be the addition of “social emotional learning scores” on data dashboards walls whether these are in the classroom, or sequested in the building, or shared via computers. ESSA is spurring these additional measures, and some are really troublesome. See for examples

    Some cautions on SEL testing are offered here: Center on Standards and Assessment Implementation, (CSAI), managed by WestEd and the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing (CRESST). https://www.csai-online.org/resources/assessing-social-emotional-learning

    Even so, new tests are being promoted by the Assessment Work Group at the Center for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). https://casel.org/assessment-work-group/

    For the last two years, CASEL’s Assessment Work Group has been holding “design challenges” for SEL assessment. Most of the 2017 and 2018 winners were researchers. Most (but not all) of the winning proposals (about five each year) require the use of computers, and many have a game-like format. Some winners have already been established online and have many users. I will forgo a summary of the submissions. You can read about these youself, both years at https://measuringsel.casel.org/design-challenge/

    • larrycuban

      Now social-emotional learning has not appeared on any data walls I observed but, given your links, such data may not be far off. I also wonder about the behavioral management systems (e.g. ClassDoJo) that deal with SEL by using positive reinforcement techniques. Thanks for the comment, Laura.

  3. Good post. I’d add: in much of the developing world, a classroom “data wall” is a board with each student ranked by name, #1 to 50 (or whatever the class size).

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