Yes, Sometimes Football is Nerdy!

I subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight newsletter. For those of you unfamiliar with 538 it is a website about numbers. Generally polling numbers but also general and advanced statistics that founder Nate Silver and his team use to make predictions. They predict just about anything from politics to sports.They make unbiased calls on who is leading political races and pick the winners of just about every pro and major college game. They do all of this using math. Kind of nerdy but cool.


After the Green Bay Packers lost to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, Benjamin Morris, a sportswriter for 538, wrote that the Packers didn’t understand middle school mathematics. Morris’ assertion was that an understanding of middle school math would have led Mike McCarthy to attempt the two point conversion for the win rather than kick the extra point and go to OT.

Now anyone who watched this game would say it was one of the most exciting fourth quarters in NFL history. Down by a touchdown with virtually no time on the clock, Aaron Rodgers hurled an unbelievable ball into the end zone that was inexplicably caught by Jeff Janis for the game tying TD. Or should it have been the game winning TD.


According to Morris’ middle school math, the two point conversion was the mathematically correct call. On his stat sheet it, in the last 15 seasons the two point conversion is made on 47.2 percent of attempts. Not necessarily the greatest of odds. Anyone who has ever gambled would take those odds but not when the game is on the line. Everyone who has ever watched the NFL knows that. What everyone probably doesn’t know are the next two stats: 1. Since the NFL moved the extra point attempt back, NFL kickers have had a 94.3 percent success rate and 2. In the last 15 seasons, the visiting team, which in this case was the Pack, has won only 45.5 percent of the time. OK, so 1.7 percent isn’t that big of a deal but that’s not the end of this math lesson. The Packers needed to make the extra point (94.3%) AND win (45.2%). If you multiply the two of those together you get 42.9%; the percentage chance that Green Bay would win by kicking the extra point. Almost 5% worse than going for two.


Why did I spend all this time having that little discussion? Because I wonder how often we do this in real life. Had McCarthy gone for two and missed the fans, ESPN, everyone would have questioned him. How many times in our lives do we do what everyone expects us to do? How often do we play it safe instead of taking a chance? How often do we question the prevailing wisdom or the unwritten rules?


I know that as an educator people cringe when you talk about analyzing the data. This is a real world application of using data. The common consensus is that we teach these things because we have always taught these things. Kids need to know these things. The point that kids need to know these things is not what I’m arguing. What I am saying is that by not using the data we are ‘teaching’ things that students already know. By not analyzing what students need to know, we are doing them a disservice in the long run.


The obvious question then is how do we prepare students for jobs when the market is changing all the time. The simple answer is we start to teach them the skills that have the greatest percentage of possibility to be needed in the future: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.


Technology is notably absent from this list because it is a subset of all four. Teaching students to collaborate using technology is far more important than teaching them technology in a vacuum. Our students are digital natives. They understand the technology as a user better than we do. They may not know how or why it works but they know how to access the world through it. Knowing how a car works doesn’t necessarily make you a better driver. Knowing how to put data into a spreadsheet is important for some professions but it’s not the technology that leads us to be better communicators, critical thinkers, creators, or collaborators.


Quantifying Quality

One of the things that I very often do to find inspiration is to read. I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to reading because about 99% of what I read is non-fiction. I take some grief about this from the few people who know this about me. It is deeply imbedded in my personality.

My most recent inspiration came from reading The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Silver’s expertise is in the area of prognostication. More so in using Bayesian statistics to draw conclusions about probabilities of future events. For example, he correctly predicted 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election and all 50 states in 2012.

Bayesian statistics utilize a sometimes subjective prior probability to make a prediction about the probability of a future event. For example, the number and strength of past earthquakes increase the probability of future, stronger earthquakes.

The reason for my post, as I normally right about education, is whether we can use Bayesian statistics to determine whether the new Framework for Teaching, developed by Charlotte Danielson and adopted by Pennsylvania as it’s new evaluation tool, can predict the number of ineffective teachers in a school.

The Danielson model, by her own admission was developed to provide teachers a framework through which to improve their teaching. Therefore, what we probably want to predict is how likely are teachers to improve by utilizing the Framework.

Another question to answer, and Silver has eluded to his desire to attempt it, is whether any subjective measure can really quantitatively measure the effectiveness of a teacher. In a reddit IAmA, he stated, “There are certainly cases where objective measures applied badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of them.” He said this in regard to a question about using test scores to rate teacher effectiveness.

In Pennsylvania, teachers and administrators will be rated on a combination of both: standardized test scores and the Danielson Framework for Teaching. One concrete measure that historically has been shown to be determined more by location than by quality teaching and one qualitative, formative measure that will be applied quantitatively.

I know it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic but the argument continually needs to be made that education is more qualitative; more art and less quantitative; less science.

Of Earthquakes and Mass Murderers

I haven’t blogged since a couple days after the tragedy in Sandy Hook. Unlike many writers I needed the whole thing to sink in and try to make sense of it. Others ran to their pens to begin the finger pointing and protecting their political agendas. I do have some pretty strong beliefs but I didn’t know if they were legitimate in this case.

I read the following quote while I was contemplating the whole situation:

“When catastrophe strikes, we look for a signal in the noise—anything that might explain the chaos that we see all around us and bring order to the world again.”

Excerpt From: Silver, Nate. “The Signal and the Noise.” Penguin Group, USA, 2012-09-05. iBooks.

The signal, according to Silver, is the data that creates a true prediction. The noise is the data that while seemingly important to the discussion only leads us away from a solid prediction. The book is fascinating in pointing out the noise in many relevant predictions.

Anyway, back to our point which is the noise surrounding the Sandy Hook school shooting. We all know what the noise was: principals carrying guns, armed security guards, eliminating assault rifles, banning large ammunition clips, bringing religion back into schools,etc. What is the answer? Without your political agenda, what do you really think would prevent the next mass shooting in the United States?

It’s just as easy to say that eliminating guns would prevent mass murders as it is to say that arming more people would. Those are just easy, politically charged responses. Easy to create your latest meme around but are either correct? It’s easy to surmise that “kicking God out of schools” is the problem.  Do any of those solutions drive out the signal that truly will be able to prevent future catastrophes?

1.  Principals with guns:  Anyone who thinks this is a good idea doesn’t know the job of a principal in the 21st Century.  We interact with kids on a daily basis.  We are an integral part of our students’ days.  We no longer sit in offices and react to problems.

2.  Armed security guards:  Schools are safe places for the majority of students.  The signal of a man with a gun at the door everyday doesn’t convey safety; it conveys fear.  Do we really want our children to group up in a culture of fear?

3.  Assault weapons ban:  This from Wikipedia; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the “assault weapon” ban and other gun control attempts, and found “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence,” noting “that insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness.”[7] A 2004 critical review of research on firearms by a National Research Council panel also noted that academic studies of the assault weapon ban “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence” and noted “due to the fact that the relative rarity with which the banned guns were used in crime before the ban … the maximum potential effect of the ban on gun violence outcomes would be very small….”[8]

4.  Banning large ammo clips:  Probably the most realistic option for eliminating mass produced mayhem but again if you look at the information from the Wikipedia article above, ARs are not used in that many incidences of gun violence so these two categories are interrelated.

5.  Put God back in schools:  Probably my favorite from the point of view that it is so shortsighted and exhibits a great lack of faith from the proclaimed faithful.  First, a faithful Christian believes that God is everywhere.  Second, we should not consider the imperfections of humans to reflect the imperfections of God.  Third, there have been just as many or more court cases that allow prayer in schools than ones that do not.  The only prayer not allowed in schools is prayer that is state-sanctioned.

All of it so far seems like noise.  One interesting story in Nate Silver’s book is about predicting earthquakes.  A much harder task than predicting hurricanes.  Predicting test score = hurricanes.  Predicting mass muderers shooting through your door for no apparent reason = earthquakes.

The reality is that no catastrophe is 100% preventable.  The best we can do is to be prepared.  The best we can do is to let our children know that we will do whatever we can to keep them safe.  The best we can do is all we can do.