A Sports Analogy: Baseball and Effectiveness***
Not long ago I finished reading The Signal and the Noise. This is my favorite kind of book; it’s the perfect sort of non-fiction in which an intriguing and thoughtful narration of the human experience is somewhat disguised as a statistics lesson (or the other way around?). In it, Nate Silver discusses the science of prediction, illustrating the causes and effects of poor predictions with three very relevant and familiar systems- Housing Market, Baseball and Weather. To be fair, I was quite prepared to skip over the baseball chapter, but something in the story resonated with the discussions about another relevant and familiar system – teacher evaluations.
Silver’s story of sports prediction goes something like this. Traditional baseball scouts spent decades observing and measuring many different qualities of players in order to determine who might be the next to move up to the big game. Easily observable and countable, these isolated numbers – batting average, runs batted in - determined the perceived value of the players throughout their career. Then, some very smart statistics nerds began tracking other information. They found that other data was far better at predicting how well a player would actually contribute to the goal of the team – earn runs, win games. These values for players were less isolated, more complex, and harder to observe. Witness the birth of saberstatistics and a new era in managing teams.
So, if we allow an analogy, what can we educators learn? Teacher evaluation systems are intended to measure teachers’ effectiveness and, traditionally, this means observing a particular set of behaviors. In other words, we look for teacher actions/strategies that we think will predict student learning in the classroom. But are we playing with the best statistics? How do we know which of these observable characteristics are really what gets us closer to the goal? The danger is that we take all the data that correlates to student success (great teachers do this) with out always prioritizing which strategies these teachers use to really elicit student growth.
Research would suggest that traditionally we haven’t been looking for the real indicators, as we so often see a disconnect between student success and teacher evaluation results. I do not know which statistics might be the Moneyball (Moneychalk? Appleball?) for teachers, but I do know that these questions will be answered by teacher reflection and student voice. We have been asking “what strategies have you been using in class” and “what were the results.” But we know that as teachers we make thousands of decisions that can affect the outcome for students every day. I think it’s time to dig a little deeper and ask ourselves, “how did this strategy effect student learning as evidenced in their work?” This, I realize, takes more time, more thinking, and more collaborative reflection around quality student work and reflection samples. But it is this kind of discussion that grows us as professionals and as a profession.
There is one last striking element to Silver’s story. In it, he found that the best predictions for a player’s performance came from looking at the player’s effectiveness as a trajectory rather than a snapshot. He put an emphasis on the player’s potential growth and potential to reach their peak. This is my favorite lesson from the book. Keep working, keep training, keep getting a few more hits every season.
Thanks and please keep the convo going in the comments here or on twitter. Find us as @kastidham
*** It should be noted that my experience in America's Pastime can be summed up in two seasons of little league and a solid black eye. I apologize if there are inaccuracies in this section.