Numbers Can’t Tell the Whole Story

You should know by now that I’m a bit of a data nerd. 

I love spreadsheets. I love organizing data and using it to illuminate patterns. I love the “ah-ha” moments when clients realize how much their own data can tell them about the kids and families they’re serving. 

So it may surprise you that I’m here to say that numbers and spreadsheets don’t tell us everything. 

That doesn’t mean that numbers (or quantitative data) are irrelevant. 

It just means that they are even more informative when paired with stories, quotations, or anecdotes (qualitative data). 

(See the box for a quick refresher on the difference between the two). 

Quantitative Data

  • Numerical information
  • Can be condensed to numbers and statistics
  • Can be aggregated, combining data to look at the highest level (Ex. school-wide) or disaggregated, to look at the smallest level (Ex. student-level data)

Qualitative Data

  • Contextual information
  • Can be gained from interviews, focus groups, and observations
  • Can be analyzed and condensed into patterns and trends or used as case studies or anecdotes from individual people or schools

Here’s an example. Yesterday, I was re-reading an article from The Columbus Dispatch, my local paper, about the spike in youth violence that has occurred during the pandemic.

It’s been horrible to hear about how many children and teens (well, really anyone, for that matter) have been victims of gun violence since the spring.

The article cites a number of statistics — that the number of children treated in Columbus for gunshot wounds this spring and summer was double the rate from 2019 (from 16 to 32); and that children from racial or ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be shot than white children. 

Those are AWFUL statistics – and they certainly help me see that there is a dire situation here. 

But then, the article talks to a teacher whose student — an eight year-old boy — was killed. Here’s what the article shares about (and from) the teacher: 

Thalgott has lost a handful of former students during her 20 years of teaching on the South Side. She’s seen even more students who have lost a parent to gun violence. 

“The sad thing is it no longer shocks me,” Thalgott said. “And that’s what is scary. How have we let this get to the point where it is no longer shocking?”

​Having lost some former students or their family members to gun violence — either as victims or perpetrators — this quote really gets to me.

This quote conjures up such raw emotions that suddenly it puts the statistics they cited into context. 

Those 32 children are somebody’s child, somebody’s sibling, somebody’s student, somebody’s mentee. Hearing from a person who actually experienced that loss made a big difference in how I processed this article. I imagine it did for you too. 

Quantitative data can be so powerful, but its impact is amplified when we lift up the voices of those we are serving or studying. 

Qualitative data — gathered through interviews, focus groups, open-ended survey questions, or observations — can sometimes more effectively communicate the experience ​of what is happening in your school or community.

I’ll be doing a series of posts on qualitative data over the next few weeks — how to collect it, how to use it, and how using a combination of data can truly help you tell your story.