Data, a Four Letter Word
Data, for many educators, is the most profane four letter word you can hear at school.
This is understandable considering many districts are awash in various kinds of data. There are standardized tests scores, student behavior tracking, enrollment numbers, budget reports, grants to write and grant reports to complete. Numbers are everywhere and they seem more like annoying obligations than genuinely useful information.
I would also venture a guess that many people go into the field of education because they like to work with people and solve human problems. Somehow all these numbers seem dehumanizing. In fact, I often hear people dichotomizing; he’s the data guy, I leave that to him. I’m no good with numbers.
I would question the idea that everyone is relegated to two piles: numbers people or people people. This is important because to solve the bullying problems we’re having in school everyone needs to pay attention to the numbers.
Why Do We Need the Numbers?
Much of bullying prevention work focuses awareness and education of adults and students. Students, if asked, will say bullying is wrong and it shouldn’t be happening at school. Yet we continue to see a lot more bullying than we would like. What do we actually know about this bullying? Where does it happen? What is the nature of it? How much goes unreported?
Most schools I come in contact with can tell me about the most egregious bullying incidents; the ones that attract the attention of parents or end up with someone in the principal’s office. Yet surveys of students show us that there is another level of antisocial behavior occurring every school day, sometimes every hour of the day. Add to this that most students, when surveyed, say they don’t report bullying or, if they do, don’t have confidence in the adult response.
The only way to penetrate this hidden world of antisocial behavior that makes school a miserable place for so many kids is through collecting data.
In this case collecting data means something very specific:
- Surveying students at least 2 times per year using valid survey items
- Asking students directly, typically in small groups, what sort of behavior they see at school
- Systematically documenting student input – even the small stuff
- Visually assess transitional spaces and document what you see
In my experience, some districts are using school climate surveys to systematically collect student input which is a great start. These surveys can help school staff measure the pulse of the school climate. Nevertheless, more specific information is needed to understand the what-when-and-where of bullying in your school. Students, when engaged in conversation, in a safe environment, can reveal a lot of behavior – some that will make your hair stand on end.
Documenting student feedback, on the fly, may be the most crucial piece of bullying data collecting. Students are reporting all kinds of information each day in small bits and pieces. In a bullying prevention project, I worked on in northern Wisconsin, the playground aides agree to carry clipboards and record all student input, even the most trivial. The aides groaned at the prospect of all this data collection at first. Soon it became second nature and we quickly discovered two students who were doing a lot of below-the-radar bullying.
Finally, I would recommend an objective observation of a school’s transitional spaces, like hallways, playgrounds, lunchrooms and school buses. I encourage a school to use someone who DOES NOT work in your building. Too often we become immersed in the culture of our school and can’t see the problems right under our noses.
Making Sense of the Data
Twice each year a designated committee from the school community should assemble to review your data. Is there a magic way to present and interpret this data? Not necessarily. Some schools have the resources of an analyst or a statistician which would be a great help with the survey data. However, most of the data, I’m suggesting you collect will make glaring issues self-evident. In most cases, improvements will be made as you go along. The committee’s role is to maintain some accountability for the whole data collection effort.
To me, data collection is analogous to creating a travel fund to save up for next year’s vacation. Each week you put a little bit aside and so when summer comes you have the funds to take a nice trip. This is better than waiting until summer arrives and saying “Darn, I wish I had saved money last year so I could take a nice vacation!” The same thing is true with data. Each week you collect information, then, when you really need it, it’s available to you.
Finally, my sympathies go out to all the educators who can’t choke down another stack of reports. So much of the data we collect is filed away and never used – but not all of it. Every day we use data without giving it a second thought. In fact, we would feel disoriented if we didn’t know what time it is, or how much gas is in our car or what’s the temperature outside. These data have meaning to us. We know what is hot and what is cold. What is late and what is early. The same could be true of the number student reported incidents of bullying, if you got in the habit of collecting the information and discussing it.