Are You Ready for Some Data?
Football season is here again. I know this from the practices taking place outside my office window and from the Indian and Chief red I see everywhere I go. But football season brings another ritual in my house – the invasion of my husband’s fantasy football buddies for their annual draft. Every year they bring chips, draft magazines and the hopeful dream that they will reign supreme by defeating their middle-aged, out of shape friends and winning the Fantasy Super Bowl.
For any of you unfamiliar with this football tradition, Fantasy Football “owners” (like my husband and his friends) draft individual players from all different professional teams and combine the points they score in real games in an effort to earn more total points than the other owners each week. While this may seem like a cheap ploy to watch all of the pro games each week, the fact is that for many Fantasy owners, the performance of their own team is more important that whether their “home team” wins or loses its game. I know my husband isn’t above playing a fantasy player against the Chiefs if he thinks our defense won’t be able to hold the opponent.
In this regard, Fantasy owners are much like the sports analysts on TV and radio, or like the sports gamblers placing bets in Vegas. While many of these people (who I’ll call analysts) may be fans of a particular team, when push comes to shove they care much more about correctly predicting the outcome of the game than about who actually wins or loses. These analysts use data extensively in their efforts. My husband chooses who to draft based on players’ previous performance, and analysts and gamblers are always parsing and evaluating data to determine which offense has the best chance against which defense.
I would argue that there are some educators, in our district and across the country, who look at their students’ academic performance in the same way. While they may want each child to succeed on some level, they’re really more interested in correctly “picking” which students will be winners and losers in the educational game. They analyze data for patterns and identify correlations among variables in an effort to accurately predict which individuals and which demographics will come out on the top, the middle and the bottom of the educational “game.”
Not everyone has the stomach for Fantasy sports and gambling though, because it does lead you to sometimes root against your own. These individuals are truly dedicated fans, who stick with and believe in their “home team” despite all odds and sometimes common sense. Fans, as you can hear every day on sports radio, are also apt to use data to support the belief that their team will be victorious. The problem is that these people often use data selectively and through a distorted lens in order to make it match their view of reality. Mark Twain once said “There’s lies, there’s damn lies, and then there’s statistics.” If someone wants to find something to make a point in any set of data, the information will be there to do it.
Again, sometimes in education we use data as fans. Because we want our students to be successful, we look for the specific data that supports our world view, even if that data isn’t reflective of reality as a whole. These student fans may see small improvements for more than what they are, and may distort the game itself by setting classroom expectations low enough that every student can reach them, without heeding the fact this approach will not prepare students in the long run.
In addition to analysts and fans though there is one other very important group of football stakeholders. It is only the players themselves and their coaches and trainers who actually have the opportunity and the power to impact the outcome of a game. For coaches and players, data is extremely important. Without comprehensive and accurate information about the current reality of the team and the players, coaches can’t possibly guide their teams to success. By looking at ongoing information and monitoring progress over time, coaches are able to work with their players to set the types of specific goals and game plans that will lead to victory in the end.
Of course as educators, this is the role we play and the view of data we must take in order to be successful as well. Just as good football coaches know the rules of the game, we must know our curriculum and expectations for students. And just as coaches and their players continuously train and rehearse to be prepared for the game, we as teachers must use all that we know about each of our students to lead everyone to academic victory.
It isn’t easy to be the coach. It certainly isn’t as easy as being an analyst who predicts winners and losers, or being a fan who blindly cheers for his team without a clear view of reality. It is possible though, and it is our professional and moral responsibility to serve as coaches to our students as they strive to achieve their academic goals.
Football season is upon us, and so is “data season” in schools. Like all good coaches, we have to review our data objectively and comprehensively, but we also must remember that data, particularly negative data, is only valuable to the extent that we use it to improve the eventual outcome. Analysts have no interest in changing the outcome. Fans have no power. It is only us, the teachers, coaches and trainers of our students who can use data to make all our students winners in the end. And we don’t even have to face down Tom Brady or the Patriots defense to make it happen.