What Football Reveals for Education about False Allure of Quantification

If you want to understand the inherent complexity of professional football, you may want to start with a person with a long and rich career in the sport. For example, consider “Super Bowl-winning former Ravens coach Brian Billick” responding to the rise of metrics and statistics in the NFL:

“One of the most common questions I get is, Can you do Moneyball, for lack of a better term, in the NFL? And the answer is, No, you can’t,” Billick said. “You can’t quantify the game of football the way you do baseball. It’s not a statistical game. The parameters of the game, the number of bodies and what they’re doing in conjunction with one another.”

The collaborative and human (although not humane) elements of football, it appears, render the power of statistics less predictive—and less useful—in the sport than in baseball.

One lesson, then, seems to be that statistics are not universally valid and predictive, particularly in contexts that are highly complex.

I am reminded of the post-Katrina analysis of the pre-landfall models for the massive hurricane. That image of hundreds of models was a nightmare of confusion, lending little in valuable predictive information for anyone.

The post-Katrina data on just what did occur, however, were fascinating and powerful.

Since the U.S. cares more about the NFL than public education, Billick’s skepticism and warnings are likely to be better heeded than decades of similar warnings from teachers about the rise of measurable data (mostly high-stakes test scores) in evaluating students, teachers, and schools.

In education, the tug-of-war continues, and I fear, those of us siding wth Billick in the context of education are not fairing well.

See this report advocating more metrics in teacher quality pursuits, Smart, Skilled, and Striving: Transforming and Elevating the Teaching Profession, and then a review, mostly discrediting the report as the abstract notes:

This report from the Center for American Progress offers 10 recommendations for improving the public perceptions of and experiences of classroom teachers. While elements of these recommendations would likely be beneficial, they also include policy changes that would increase surveillance of teachers, reduce teachers’ job security, evaluate teachers by students’ test scores, and create merit pay systems that would likely have the opposite effect. For evidence, the report relies too heavily on popular rhetoric, sound bites, opinion articles, and advocacy publications to advance a policy agenda that in many ways could do further harm to the teaching profession. However, many of the report’s recommendations do align with policy reforms currently being proposed for the Higher Education Act and included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorizations and are therefore important to read critically and consider carefully. In advancing evaluation of teachers by test scores, the report goes against the cautions and guidelines recently released by the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association. Other than a review of contemporary issues, the report offers little of substance to advance the teaching profession.

Let’s hold our collective breaths about which will win out. Any predictions?

4 comments

  1. Bernardo Montes de Oca

    Whoa, great article! I love the comparison, and coming from another country, I’ve seen many of my teacher friends in the U.S. struggle to be recognized as professionals and if more often than not, seem more antagonized than anything else.

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