It’s all about the data!

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I’ve been teaching for 9 years, all 9 in special education and all 9 in Illinois. While I’ve always felt under-appreciated and over-stressed, this school year has been particularly difficult. Now don’t get me wrong. I love my job. My passion is life truly is working with people with disabilities. For the past 7 years, I’ve worked at a cooperative in a program for students with multiple, significant disabilities. I love seeing the small steps my students can make after months, sometimes, years of working on certain skills. However, lately it’s been harder and harder to focus on those little triumphs due to factors completely outside of my control.

Recently I’ve started narrowing down what exactly it is that’s causing the added stress, and I think I’ve got it: it’s the data! The endless amounts of data that has to be collected, analyzed, interpreted, re-collected, re-analyzed, etc., etc., etc. is enough to send even the most experienced, level-headed teacher running back to college. Between the data for IEP goals, the monthly, quarterly, and yearly data for each curriculum used by the school, behavior data, data forms for the school’s PBIS program, and IAA (or ISAT for some of us) testing, I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of paperwork. Add to all this our state’s recent mandate that pay increases be determined at least partly by student progress and the importance of data collection jumps to an entirely new level. I am extremely lucky to work for a school that chose NOT to determine “student progress” by simply looking at IAA or ISAT scores, and takes teachers’ opinions into account when figuring exactly what we’re going to do. In reality, this means countless hours spent in meetings to develop school-wide data collection plans, then testing the plans, rewriting everything, re-testing, and it goes on and on.

The constant need to document and save everything so it can be analyzed and used at a later time to determine “student progress” then creates a new problem in the classroom: too much paper! I know this is a problem faced by pretty much every teacher ever, so there are countless solutions. While there’s nothing I can do about the amount of data I am required to collect, I CAN do something about the paperwork. Being the type of person who is completely flustered by inefficiency, I’ve tried several different ways of organizing the mountains of data I collect each week.

1. Clipboards: When I was doing my student teaching I gave each student a clipboard and kept all relevant data sheets with the clipboard. The staff that was working with the student would keep the clipboard with them and could take data throughout the day. This worked really well at the time, but that was back before the amount of data we are required to take became so overwhelming. I tried this at my current school and I ran into the problem of people remembering WHEN to take the data. I tried highlighting a printed schedule to indicate when the staff member should be taking data, but that didn’t really catch on.

2. Individual folders for each “center”: Next, I tried dividing skills that would need data collection into groups and creating centers. Each center had a folder, and each student had a tab with their data sheets for that center. This worked well for collecting the data, but made it difficult for me to organize the data for each student when it came time to update goals or write a new IEP. Now that the data collection has gotten even more extensive, I’m not sure this would work, as there are some times when data needs to be collected that doesn’t fit into our “center time”.

3. Student Binders: Last year, a colleague suggested the idea of student binders, and it was like a whole new world to me! Each student in my room has a binder with tabs for all of the different data collection sheets that relate to that student. Staff has gotten used to grabbing the binders throughout the day for data collection purposes. Plus, when it’s time for me to analyze the data, it’s already divided by student for me to look at. I took it a step further and included lots of other things in the binders: journals, emergency contact information, quarterly update sheets, morning check-in information, etc. (I’ll try to add some pictures of the binders later, but right now we’re on an “extended weekend” due to the weather, so it may be a while before I get them up).

This list is by no means even close to extensive, but it’s what I’ve done to try and ease the increasing pressure from the ever-increasing data problems we, as special educators, will most likely continue to face.

For more information about organizing in special education, check out this Pinterest board.

Click here for an interesting blog post about what else contributes to the stress and high burn-out rate among special education teachers.

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