Beyond Data: How pride in local sports should be all-around pride in local schools.

I love fall.  It’s my favorite season.  I have totes and totes full of fall decorations, and each year I feel like I put them out earlier and earlier–it’s a challenge for me to make it to September 1 anymore.  In fact, I’m usually ready for August 1, but fight myself and hold back until AT LEAST the first football game of the season.

One of my favorite things about fall (ranking high with pumpkin spice flavoring, the smells, the colors, and cool temps) is local high school football.  I’m not a huge sports fan (although I was “All In” with the rest of Cleveland through the play-offs!), but there is something that happens in school districts entire towns and communities when the football season starts.  Maybe it’s my own nostalgic remembrances of being a cheerleader and member of the marching band, but communities gather at these events and cheer for their team.  It’s our team, our pride, our kids, our school.  People genuinely seem to be a part of a collective at football games–there’s a sense of belonging, community that you just don’t feel from any other school event.

As I reflect on the happenings of this past week (recounted below), I can’t help but to wonder why that feeling and sentiment don’t seem to translate to the world of academics.  What I mean is….how is it possible that communities will rally around their athletes, wearing school colors, referring to “our *insert mascot*” year after year, but that school pride and spirit doesn’t always/often/ever seem to transfer to belief/trust in the quality of that same school when annual state report cards are released?

Let’s simply compare newspaper coverage of the two:  When the local sports team is winning, “VICTORY” claims the front page heading; that same paper will be the first to publish “SCHOOLS ON DECLINE” when report cards (a SINGLE data point) are released.  Does that paper value the school or not?

Here’s another example:  Those same community members who will yell “DEFENSE” at the game with their local mascot tattoos are the very same community members who will hold picket signs broadcasting “OUR SCHOOLS ARE FAILING” (based on a SINGLE data point) when levies are on the ballot.

So….we are willing to put faith, trust, honor, pride into those things we understand (sports), but we will blindly follow those things we don’t understand (data) without thinking critically about our sense of pride in ourselves…?

This past week was just another slam against BIG DATA in Ohio’s schools.  If you’ll recall, it wasn’t that long ago that Columbus City Schools administrators resigned and faced tough repercussions (on a federal level) for purposefully and knowingly omitting students from data reporting.  This week, a representative from ODE admitted to the State Board of Education that he, too, purposefully and knowingly omitted charter schools from data reporting.  Since the CPS incidents, statewide audits of data reporting have been done like a witch hunt to find other local districts guilty of data scrubbing.

I have always been convinced that statistics are bunk because anyone can make them say what they want them to say–choose a different sample/size/context/testing measure, and one can force any result.  How many times do we need to see erroneously reported school data before we begin to distrust those “easy-to-understand” A’s and B’s—you know, so “easy-to-understand” that Battelle’s Value Added formula is multiple LINES OF TEXT long.  There is nothing easy to understand about school data–someone, somehow decides something, and *poof* there’s a score.  But that score….we bank on that score; we make decisions based on it; we compare ourselves to others; we lose our sense of pride in the schools because we aren’t as “excellent” on that report card as the neighboring district with a totally different clientele; we stop voting for local schools, and we decry them instead.

I just wonder how we can manage to keep that sense of local pride that runs so rampant at those fall football games—no matter what those magical scores report from year to year.  Is there a way for communities to see beyond faulty (meaningless) designations, and to determine meaning for themselves?  Can we get beyond blind faith in “easy-to-understand” multi-line formulas based on ever-changing assessments, and just believe in our local system?  Can local schools produce OTHER measures to show multiple data points that reflect true, longitudinal performance?  How can we make all aspects of the school (sport, academics, extracurriculars, etc.) consistent points of pride for communities?

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