professornana (professornana) wrote,

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The Numbers Game

Last week a lot of rain fell in Houston and surrounding areas. The good news is that BH and I live in a lakeside subdivision, so the rain has a wonderful place to run off. The bad news is for the folks who live downstream once the lake waters pour into a local river. More bad news: water inside schools and school libraries. It was impossible to know, however, to gauge exactly how much rainfall there was. Reports varied from place to place and even from channel to channel. The folks setting up the TLA conference in downtown Houston called it a "little rain" and later had to backpedal a tad to warn people coming in to the conference to watch the weather carefully and make safe decisions. The good news? Many made it in to the conference albeit with some travel delays.

But in education, numbers is a more serious game than rainfall. A recent Ed Week article estimated the percentage of bad teachers at 6% (;jsessionid=BBE6533001FEEDC696E42C592105EEDB.santino2?rssid=25919961& I am not certain how we even begin to measure something like this. And I thin it is rather important we ask these questions if we are to understand how to move forward from identifying bad teachers to assisting them. But I hate that we scatter numbers around sometimes without knowing what those numbers even mean.

One of my favorite sites shows how numbers can be used in absolutely meaningless ways. For instance, look at this correlation:

Or maybe this correlation:

These are, obviously, hilarious looks at how correlational data can be misconstrued. Unfortunately, I see similar correlational data used in education. And each time I do, I remember this sentence from my stat classes: correlation does not equal causation. We can show lots of correlations but we need to know sometimes the underlying causation. For instance, many packaged programs that claim to increase test scores show data that appears to confirm their claims. One of my favorite offenders here are the programs that make kids take quizzes over books. They claim it increases test scores. However, if you look a bit more closely at the program, there are other components involved. They include, in some instances, choice, time to read, a reading climate at the school, and more. Those factors are, by and large, what is driving the test scores. We have the research that shows more than correlations. But the companies producing these programs ignore those other components and make claims that it is the program driving the scores.

Of course, some of these programs had exhibit booths at the TLA conference (see how I circled back here). But I left TLA Friday morning to head north to the North Texas Teen Book Festival. Thousands of kids came Saturday to listen to more than 60 different authors. They stood in lines waiting for autographed books (and they bought a ton of books). Karin Perry and I heard screaming as we approached the autographing area. We were convinced someone was being trampled. However, the scream was coming from a girl who came skipping out of the autographing area holding two books above her head and screaming, "I got them signed. Oh em Gee! I got to get them signed." This scene repeated itself over and over again. A young man walked up to Gordon Korman while we were chatting and shook his hand and reminded Gordon that he had waited last year to get his autograph and that THIS year he would wait to get James Dashner's signature. I saw kids hand Sharpies to authors so they could get their shirts signed.

So, here is some data for you. Thousands of kids. Tens of thousands of books. Seventy-five authors. A Saturday. Buses from hundreds of miles away. No correlations needed. I know the cause for these numbers: kids love books, kids love meeting the authors, educators love kids and authors and books enough to take time on Saturday to chaperone the field trip. Finally, he planning/program committee knows the power of putting books and kids and authors together. No one in attendance could doubt what the numbers were saying loud and clear.
Tags: numbers, stats
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