Home > guest post > Why Education Isn’t Like Sports

Why Education Isn’t Like Sports

June 19, 2013

This is a guest post by Eugene Stern.

Sometimes you learn just as much from a bad analogy as from a good one. At least you learn what people are thinking.

The other day I read this response to this NYT article. The original article asked whether the Common Core-based school reforms now being put in place in most states are really a good idea. The blog post criticized the article for failing to break out four separate elements of the reforms: standards (the Core), curriculum (what’s actually taught), assessment (testing), and accountability (evaluating how kids and educators did). If you have an issue with the reforms, you’re supposed to say exactly which aspect you have an issue with.

But then, at the end of the blog post, we get this:

A track and field metaphor might help: The standard is the bar that students must jump over to be competitive. The curriculum is the training program coaches use to help students get over the bar. The assessment is the track meet where we find out how high everyone can jump. And the accountability system is what follows after its all over and we want to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and what it will take to help kids jump higher.


In track, jumping over the bar is the entire point. You’re successful if you clear the bar, you’ve failed if you don’t. There are no other goals in play. So the standard, the curriculum, and the assessment might be nominally different, but they’re completely interdependent. The standard is defined in terms of the assessment, and the only curriculum that makes sense is training for the assessment.

Education has a lot more to it. The Common Core is a standard covering two academic dimensions: math and English/language arts/literacy. But we also want our kids learning science, and history, and music, and foreign languages, and technology, as well as developing along non-academic dimensions: physically, socially, morally, etc. (If a school graduated a bunch of high academic achievers that couldn’t function in society, or all ended up in jail for insider trading, we probably wouldn’t call that school successful.)

In Cathy’s terminology from this blog post, the Common Core is a proxy for the sum total of what we care about, or even just for the academic component of what we care about.

Then there’s a second level of proxying when we go from the standard to the assessment. The Common Core requirements are written to require general understanding (for example: kindergarteners should understand the relationship between numbers and quantities and connect counting to cardinality). A test that tries to measure that understanding can only proxy it imperfectly, in terms of a few specific questions.

Think that’s obvious? Great! But hang on just a minute.

The real trouble with the sports analogy comes when we get to the accountability step and forget all the proxying we did.  “After it’s all over and we want to figure out what went right (and) what went wrong,” we measure right and wrong in terms of the assessment (the test). In sports, where the whole point is to do well on the assessment, it may make sense to change coaches if the team isn’t winning. But when we deny tenure to or fire teachers whose students didn’t do well enough on standardized tests (already in place in New York, now proposed for New Jersey as well), we’re treating the test as the whole point, rather than a proxy of a proxy. That incentivizes schools to narrow the curriculum to what’s included in the standard, and to teach to the test.

We may think it’s obvious that sports and education are different, but the decisions we’re making as a society don’t actually distinguish them.

Categories: guest post
  1. June 19, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Recognizing proxies turns out to be very useful.


    • June 19, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      So, grades are proxies for student learning? Ha!

      This myth is only useful for teachers, schools, for scamming taxpayers, and students.


  2. Dmitry
    June 19, 2013 at 9:54 am

    So the analogy is great — it drives this clear analysis perfectly, and helps the reader understand it.

    It helps us all think about these four elements, and it helps us think about the quality of the assessment-to-standard (good match in sports, bad in education), and also whether the standard is really what we care about.

    There is trouble with the proxies, but Peter Cunningham’s sports analogy does its job well.


  3. Glen S. McGhee
    June 19, 2013 at 10:21 am

    It is good to point out that Common Core is being used as a proxy, but a proxy for what?

    Education can be viewed as mostly ceremonial, as a ritual classification system.

    “[C]eremonial assessment criteria [are used] to define the value of structural elements …

    Ceremonial criteria of worth and ceremonially derived production functions
    are useful to organizations: they legitimate organizations with internal
    participants, stockholders, the public, and the state, as with the IRS or the
    SEC. They demonstrate socially the fitness of an organization. The incorporation
    of structures with high ceremonial value, such as those reflecting
    the latest expert thinking or those with the most prestige, makes the credit
    position of an organization more favorable. Loans, donations, or investments
    are more easily obtained. Finally, units within the organization use ceremonial
    assessments as accounts of their productive service to the organization.
    Their internal power rises with their performance on ceremonial
    measures (Salancik and Pfeffer 1974).”

    John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan, Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony (AJS 1977)


    • June 19, 2013 at 11:43 am

      And, of course, these proxies/ceremonial criteria are gamed in short order to acquire funding, maintain prestige and preserve rank. Principals and teachers adjusting answers on their students’ standardized tests are only the tip of the iceberg in the range of accommodations made by the ed biz to appear successful in the midst of a climate of unrelenting criticism and the application of unrealistic and shallow proxies for success.


  4. Chris
    June 19, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I remember being taught to the test when I was back in high school over 12 years ago. It seemed to be a highly encouraged practice then to take the month to teach the test so the school could get high scores. The students themselves are also being judged by these scores and I was under the impression it was supposed to be what material the students understood. I wonder how we can make these tests what they are supposed to be once again, and not a gauge for whether someone can keep their job or not.


  5. Dmitry
    June 19, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    I don’t have first-hand experience with Common Core, but am ready to believe that it doesn’t really reflect what we care about in our children’s education. What DO we care about?

    My answer would be – the ability to think (whether about a math problem, or a story, or another person’s argument, or the truthfulness of a news report). And also a fair amount of knowledge – but that would vary over time, from place to place, and from person to person.

    If we want a proxy for the ability to think, then the standardized tests I’ve seen are a poor proxy indeed. What would be a better proxy? Different questions on the test, or a different approach entirely? Or would we all be better off without measuring it? (I hope mathbabe disagrees.)


    • Michelle
      June 19, 2013 at 10:57 pm

      “What DO we care about?
      My answer would be – the ability to think (whether about a math problem, or a story, or another person’s argument, or the truthfulness of a news report). And also a fair amount of knowledge…”

      This is pretty much exactly what the Common Core Standards *try* to describe. One may argue with how well they do that. (They try to describe more carefully what it actually means “to think about a math problem,” and of course there be dragons. Others take issue with what qualifies as a “fair amount of knowledge,” with some folks claiming there’s too much crammed into each year and others decrying that their favorite topic is getting short shrift.)

      It’s pretty easy to get first-hand experience with Common Core — the whole thing is publicly available here http://www.corestandards.org/ — rather than espousing doubts about it that you admit are uninformed.


  6. Leon
    June 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    This is a terrific post, by the way. Slightly off-topic, for some reason I was thinking about massive online open courses (MOOCs) as I read this post: massive open online courses. Having experienced a few MOOCs for my own personal benefit as well as traditional university courses, I have to say that while MOOCs are better than nothing, their over-reliance on a rather poor proxy in gauging your own performance makes them inferior to traditional courses in my experience.

    I mean, I’ve taken a few rather basic courses to fill some gaps in my own academic background, and it feels as though after the course I didn’t really master the subject. It was helpful in getting a broad overview of the material, and a feel for what it was about, but it seemed that the materials and especially the homework wasn’t really enough for me to really cement my understanding of the subject.

    Perhaps some of this was that finer details and more high-brow explanations and motivations for the formulae were missing from the course in order to make it as broadly accessible as possible, but at the same time I don’t think that was the entire story either.


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