What school reformers can learn from poker


(Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

School reformers have made student outcomes the big focus of their efforts, targeting teachers for failure to improve student achievement. But teachers say they ignore the inputs — the issues students bring into a classroom and the training/resources of  teachers. Here’s a look about the problem with outcome-based assessment, by Ben Spielberg,  a Teach For America alum and current math instructional coach in San Jose Unified School District who serves on the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association.  Ben co-founded 34justice.com and blogs about a variety of social justice issues, where you can find a version of this post. He has a bachelors degree in Mathematical and Computational Sciences from Stanford University and has written several articles about education research and policy.

By Ben Spielberg

Imagine I observe two poker players playing two tournaments each. During their first tournaments, Player A makes $1200 and Player B loses $800. During her second tournament, Player A pockets another $1000. Player B, on the other hand, loses $1100 more during her second tournament. Would it be a good decision for me to sit down at a table and model my play after Player A?

For many people the answer to this question – no – is counterintuitive. I watched Player A and Player B play two tournaments each and their results were very different – haven’t I seen enough to conclude that Player A is the better poker player? Yet poker involves a considerable amount of luck and there are numerous possible short- and longer-term outcomes for skilled and unskilled players. As Nate Silver writes in The Signal and the Noise, I could monitor each player’s winnings during a year of their full-time play and still not know whether either of them was any good at poker. It would be fully plausible for a “very good limit hold ‘em player” to “have lost $35,000” during that time. Instead of focusing on the desired outcome of their play – making money – I should mimic the player who uses strategies that will, over time, increase the likelihood of future winnings. As Silver writes,

When we play poker, we control our decision-making process but not how the cards come down. If you correctly detect an opponent’s bluff, but he gets a lucky card and wins the hand anyway, you should be pleased rather than angry, because you played the hand as well as you could. The irony is that by being less focused on your results, you may achieve better ones.

As Silver recommends for poker and Teach For America recommends to corps members, we should always focus on our “locus of control.” College applicants should not judge their success on whether or not colleges accept them. They should evaluate themselves on what they control – the work they put into high school and their applications. Likewise, great football coaches recognize that they should judge their teams not on their won-loss records, but on each player’s successful execution of assigned responsibilities. Smart decisions and strong performance do not always beget good results; the more factors in-between our actions and the desired outcome, the less predictive power the outcome can give us.

Most education reformers and policymakers, unfortunately, still fail to recognize this basic tenet of probabilistic reasoning, a fact underscored in recent conversations between Jack Schneider (a current professor and one of the best high school teachers I’ve ever had) and Michelle Rhee on the Education Week website. We implement teacher and school accountability metrics that focus heavily on student outcomes without realizing that this approach is invalid. As the American Statistical Association’s (ASA’s) recent statement on value-added modeling (VAM) clearly states, “teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in [student] test scores” and “[e]ffects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.” Paul Bruno notes that the ASA’s statement is an indictment of the way VAM is used, not the idea of VAM itself, yet little correlation currently exists between VAM results and effective teaching. Research on both student and teacher incentives suggests that rewards and consequences based on outcomes don’t work. When we use student outcome data to assign credit or blame to educators, we may close good schools, demoralize and dismiss good teachers, and ultimately undermine the likelihood of achieving the student outcomes we want.

Better policy would focus on school and teacher inputs. For example, we should agree on a set of clear and specific best teaching practices (with the caveat that they’d have to be sufficiently flexible to allow for different teaching styles) on which to base teacher evaluations. Similarly, college counselors should provide college applicants with guidance about the components of good applications. Football coaches should likewise focus on their players’ decision-making and execution of blocking, tackling, route-running, and other techniques.

poker picture

Outcomes are incredibly important to monitor and consider when selecting effective inputs, of course. Mathematicians use outcomes in a process called Bayesian analysis to constantly update our assessments of whether or not our strategies are working. If we observe little correlation between successful implementation of our identified best teaching practices and student growth for five consecutive years, for instance, we may want to revisit our definition of best practices. A college counselor whose top students are consistently rejected from Ivy League schools should begin to reconsider the advice he gives his students on their applications. Relatedly, if a football team suffers through losing season after losing season despite players’ successful completion of their assigned responsibilities, the team should probably overhaul its strategy.

The current use of student outcome data to make high-stakes decisions in education, however, flies in the face of these principles. Until we shift our measures of school and teacher performance from student outputs to school and teacher inputs, we will unfortunately continue to make bad policy decisions that simultaneously alienate educators and undermine the very outcomes we are trying to achieve.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 25