Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Nine: Chart a Course

I'm so excited to share this project with you. It's been a long time since I felt like there was some magic in the air...and when The Muse came back, she did so with a vengeance.

This is a story about whether students who have similar paths (in the form of schools, teachers, and courses) experience similar outcomes (in the form of performance).

The Data
There are a lot of data packed into the representation of each student: gender, race, with/without disability, eligible/not eligible for free/reduced lunch, performance level for grades 3 - 7 on the state math assessment, teacher for grades 3 - 7. I built a template to pull these pieces from our student information system, but beyond that, I did not need to transform any of the data—no formulas, pivot tables, etc.

I did generate an alias for every student and teacher, because I fed their connections (which student had which teacher/course) into the Connect the Dots tool on I will explain the reason for this later on in this post.

The Build
The entire display is paper and glue, with map pins to attach each "student" to a board. That's it. The representations were built by quilling paper. I love that these data look fragile, but I have to tell you that the pieces are strong and resilient...much like our students. Also like our students, nearly all of them are unique.

Here's what you're looking at for a student. The star is made of 5 rays, representing the five grade levels (3 - 7). Grade 3 is in the 12 o'clock position, and the rest follow as you move clockwise around the star. If a student didn't attend one of our schools for a given grade level, there is no ray at that position.

The paper colour for each ray shows what the performance level was on the state math assessment for that grade. Orange is level one (well below standard), yellow is level two (below standard), light blue is level three (at standard), and dark blue is level four (above standard). Each ray is wrapped in a piece of coloured paper to indicate a particular teacher/school. We have six elementary schools serving grades 3 - 5, so there are six sets of colours: orange, purple, green, blue, red, and yellow. There are two middle schools serving grades 6 - 7, represented by blue and red. If a student attended one of our schools at a given grade level, but didn't take the test, the ray has the outer wrapper and is empty for the performance level.

On the inside of each star are four round disks of paper in white (w) and grey (g).

Note that we did not have any non-binary students at this grade level last year, so male and female were the only categories. I also collapsed our students of colour into one category, and while I strongly believe that this is not best practice, I am also legally obligated to protect personally identifiable information about students. At this grade level, we have some racial populations with only two or three students. When faced with a choice of leaving race out of the conversation completely or summarizing it into two categories...I chose Option B. Certainly, there are other data points I could have selected here, such as attendance or discipline. But I like that the center of the star includes some "internal" attributes that students bring with them, while the outer rays represent the "external" pieces in the form of teachers and system outcomes.

Here is a small group of students that shows the variations by missing grade levels, missing scores, gender, etc:

Now that I had 452(!) of these objects, I needed to figure out the connections between them. This is where the Connect the Dots tool helped. For each school, I uploaded a coded list of students and teachers. The online tool produced a network diagram like the one below, but more importantly, it provided me with a table showing me who was in each group, as well as the connections.

I selected the stars in each group and laid them out as a constellation. I placed stars that had teachers/courses in common closer together. Most of our elementary schools had 6 or 7 constellations. Here is one of them (before labels).

Each elementary school was organized on its own 24" x 36" cork board that had been covered in fabric. Stars were attached with map pins and then annotations were added to share what the group had in common. The six schools were organized into two sets of three, because we have two feeder patterns into middle school. This allows a look across the district.

Lessons Learned
When people use the phrase "labour of love," I will now know what they mean. I personally wove every piece of paper used in this display. I spent about 300 hours total building this story out of 3200 pieces of paper and a bottle of glue. Most of the work was done during my summer vacation: early mornings, late nights, weekends, at home and while visiting others. I drank a ton of coffee (mostly decaf, I promise). I got glue all over everything—my computer, my dining table, me. I have never devoted so much time and energy to creating one of these stories. But it was all worth it. This is the most beautiful display I've ever built. But beyond that, it is fascinating to look at. There is so much meaning packed into this. It captures and holds one's attention.

One of the things I have to remind myself is that when I uploaded the information about students and teachers, that was it—no information about gender, race, etc. And yet, it is obvious with some of groups that they have some of these attributes in common. In other words, the system either does or does not support certain types of kids. Now, this is not new learning, especially at a large scale level. But we are talking about small groups here. Let me give you one example. For students who take the advanced math track on one side of our district, one school only placed males there...the second nearly all males...but the third placed about even numbers by gender. What was most interesting about this third school is that nearly every girl who was in this track and successful in math had the same third grade teacher. That one teacher was the common denominator...and that group was different from every other in the district. And until I built this display, I would never have seen this. I was also surprised at how different every student appeared. Yes, I know that every child is an individual, but this display really drives it home. While there are a few (but not many!) students who had the same five teachers, they did not have the same internal attributes or the same outcomes.

If you'd like to see more pictures or learn more about our data stories project in our school district, please visit the companion page on our district web site.

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