Opinion
Education Opinion

Esoteric Formulas and Educational Research

By Walt Gardner — January 07, 2013 1 min read

If you spend enough time reading educational studies, you’re bound to come across the inclusion of algebraic formulas. Even if you don’t understand them, you have to admit they are impressive. But as Carl Bialik, who is known as the Numbers Guy, wrote: “Don’t Let Math Pull the Wool Over Your Eyes” (The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4).

What Bialik meant is that “numbers can warp rather than enhance logical thinking.” It’s not just lay readers who are affected but scientific researchers as well. I was thinking in particular about the value-added metric in this regard. The claim made by its supporters is that the model takes into account factors beyond the control of teachers. So I turned to Chance, which bills itself as A Magazine for People Interested in the Analysis of Data. The article I chose was intriguingly titled “Value-Added Models to Evaluate Teachers: A Cry For Help.” I got through the first page without any trouble. The second page was a different story. My keyboard simply does not have the characters needed to reproduce the formulas here.

Perhaps in anticipation of my ignorance, the writer “explained” the formula for the first year as follows: “Student’s score (1) = district average (1) + teacher effect (1) + error (1).” Lest readers like me still failed to understand, the writer then wrote: “There are similar equations for the second, third, fourth, and fifth years, and it is instructive to look at the second year’s equation, which looks like the first except it contains a term for the teacher’s effect from the previous year.” In comparison, the instructional manual provided by the IRS for Form 1040 is child’s play.

The point is that we are too accepting of research that relies heavily on esoteric formulas. I want evidence to support conclusions about educational issues. But the evidence has to be understandable. Just as legal contracts now are increasingly written with consumers in mind, I hope that educational studies will do the same in the future. Taxpayers are entitled to know if students are being well taught, but they can’t make that judgment when they are given incomprehensible data.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Special Education Teachers
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read