Monday, November 26, 2012

What is the right number to measure?

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I had the chance to watch the movie Moneyball again. If you haven't seen it, the trailer is below:

The movie is based on a book by Michael Lewis, which was based on real events of the Oakland Athletics who took an obscure 1964 book (Percentage Baseball by Earnshaw Cook) written about baseball statistics to "change the way the game is played". Essentially, the A's wanted to look at statistics and data that would directly result in winning more games by scoring more runs by getting more players on base...didn't matter how it happened.

It wasn't until this morning, when I received a tweet from Brenda Colby to check out an article  written by Michael Brick, titled "When 'Grading' Is Degrading". As usual, something from my tweeps got me thinking. :)

NCLB, for better or worse, has radically altered the way that the public views its schools and the ways that schools are being measured as successful (or not). Schools now take a look at their results from previous years and with their practice testing try to accurately predict how students will perform and what 'grade' the school will receive. I read the article, which mirrors multiple conversations I have had online and face to face about the meaning of the test scores, and thought to myself, "What is the right number to measure?"

If you watched the trailer, you heard one of the scouts actually equate the beautiful-ness of a baseball player's girlfriend to his idea of self-confidence and whether that player will make a positive addition to the organization. This seems to be a bit of a stretch of logic to me, but the scout, who brings the 150 years of past practice, states that this way of doing things is valid and works. It also seems to me that measuring a school's success on set of test scores seems just as illogical. So again, "What is the right number to measure"?

As I was exploring the Brick article, I came across an older article on with a powerful statement right at the beginning of it:

"Data itself has no meaning, until it is organized and displayed in charts or graphs that can be interpreted, usually in multiple ways. These interpretations may usefully inform our dialogue, decisions and subsequent actions so data definitely can be valuable, but it often seems to be granted undue reverence simply because it is numerical. Although insight can derive from analysis of data, equally it can arise out of intuition and, in fact, I wonder if some analyses are not actually rationalizations subconsciously imposed on data to justify intuitive speculations." (Beairsto, 2010) (Taken from

As someone who is trying to move from autopsy data to predictive data, are we just seeing what we want to see or what past experience has told us? I completely agree with Beairsto that we need to triangulate data points to get more meaning and that we must value a qualitative research paradigm to get at the underlying meaning of what the numbers say. Especially as teacher evaluations, under Race to the Top, will bring in elements of student achievement to a teacher's rating, we need to be able to triangulate our numbers to derive meaning. But, just as FOX and MSNBC can look at data and come to completely different conclusions, what will happen when teacher unions and administrators differ on the conclusions from the data?

As we look globally, to the success of schools, school districts, and the American education system, What are the right numbers to measure?

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