The Stories We Can Tell Using Culturally-Situated Data Dialogues

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When we talk about race, race matters; when we don’t talk about race, race matters. This is one of several arguments that educational researcher Mica Pollock makes in her book, Colormute, to underscore many educators’ inability to talk explicitly about race in meaningful ways in schools. Her statement highlights our need to acknowledge and respond to the ways in which race is discussed in schools and the silence around race in learning spaces – both of which can have adverse effects on the schooling experiences and life outcomes of the young people we serve. I believe data dialogues can provide opportunities for school leaders and staff to more accurately frame data discussions and address equity issues in schooling by culturally situating these conversations. You might ask, “What does this mean?”

As individuals, we enter these dialogues with a repertoire of cultural knowledge. This knowledge represents our lived experiences, norms, values, beliefs, and behaviors, all informed by the ways in which we are socialized to exist in the world. Consequently, our beliefs about and expectations for students of various cultural groups (e.g., race, ethnicity, social class, gender, ability, etc.) are informed by this socialization. When talking specifically about various racial groups members in school, as educators we have to acknowledge and confront the ways in which our repertoire of cultural knowledge might lead us to have misguided stereotypes, lowered expectations, and uninformed claims about students’ identities and intellectual abilities. We bring these misconceptions to data dialogues, and they in turn shape the ways in which we (mis)read data and narrate data stories.

The three-phase process to using data dialogues is being utilized across the state to engage building leaders and staff in examining data to help identify and address areas of improvement in curriculum, instruction, leadership, infrastructure, and the like. As described by the MI Excel Data Dialogues in Action: An Inside View document, the phases instruct staff to: (1) make predictions about what the data will show and examine their own assumptions; (2) identify patterns in the data and observe real stories in relation to the data; and, (3) identify causal factors and generate ideas for improving student learning and achievement. In schools where educators know that differences in learning and achievement between racial groups are evident, one’s success at performing the aforementioned tasks is predicated on the ability to acknowledge and examine the cultural underpinnings that guide these tasks. Here I suggest how educators might culturally situate their data dialogues with specific attention to race and racial patterns by exploring key questions related to race and culture.

In Phase One, teams are asked to agree upon team norms, make predictions about what the data will show, and uncover their own underlying assumptions. When teams know or can predict that racial patterns exist in the data, some questions to consider for this phase include:

  1. Is our team inclusive of members who are skilled in facilitating courageous conversations regarding race and other hard-to-discuss topics about student achievement inequities? If not, who can we identify internally or externally who can help us in this area? (This question challenges teams to establish norms that are culturally inclusive and be more strategic in uncovering team members’ underlying assumptions prior to making predictions about data)
  2. Do our team members have adequate knowledge and understanding of the research on race and student achievement to make informed predictions about what the data will show? If not, how do we acquire this type of information? This question challenges team members to gain a better sense of knowing what they don’t know in order to raise race-related questions that they might have about the data and more effectively identify what might be missing from the data.

In Phase Two, data teams begin reviewing the data, looking for patterns and observing real stories in relation to the data. Some questions to consider in this phase include:

  1. Do we track data by racial groups in our school/district?  If not, what are the implications for such a move? (Teams won’t know that racial inequities exist in the data if the data is not disaggregated by race.)
  2. What other identity categories might be interacting with race to illuminate a story about learning and achievement inequities? For example, is there trend data for discipline referrals for males of color? Or are there patterns in the data for reading achievement for low-income students of color who are also identified as special education learners?

In Phase Three, data teams focus on plans for action related to key themes identified in the data and theories of causation related to observations. A culturally-situated data dialogue would consider the following questions:

  1. Who are the missing voices that can help us better narrate our story beyond what the current data depicts? What additional data do we need to collect, and from whom? This question underscores the need for a holistic narrative about learner performance, achievement inequities, and institutional/structural challenges. For example, how might parent and/or student perspectives inform what the data is telling us?
  2. What are the research-based interventions that we can explore that incorporate cultural considerations and/or target the racial groups most ‘at-risk’ in our school/district? This question challenges teams to explore solutions that might prioritize racial groups for intervention.

While this list of questions is not meant to be comprehensive, they provide a starting point for helping data teams “prepare for dialogues about racial realities” (Quaye, 2012). As PreK-12 educators, we narrate lots of stories about student data only to too often neglect the hard-to-discuss topics like race and racial inequity. If we’re ever going to close racial achievement gaps in schools, we have to begin by breaking the silence around race in data dialogues and narrating stories that are culturally-situated. This is one way for educators to be more culturally responsive in school improvement planning.