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The Educational Lottery: Without Systematic Supports, Children Lose


According to the post, “Lottery Statistics and Revenue by State,” in 2021 alone, “Americans spent approximately $95.6 billion on lottery tickets.” If you break that down, “on average, Americans spent $288 per capita in 2021 on lottery tickets.” Moreover, “the most recent polling data shows that roughly 50% of Americans buy a lottery ticket at least once a year and the majority of those only play rarely, when jackpots are enormous.” When thinking about lotteries, the chance of winning is the motivation.

Lotteries do not always lead to positive outcomes. In the short story, “The Lottery,” author Shirley Jackson takes advantage of the reader’s positive associations of winning the lottery and spins it on its head. For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s the gist. The reader gets a great deal of background information about an annual lottery tradition and understands this event is seen as a good omen to yield a good harvest. However, this tradition is similar to the tradition of picking a Tribute in The Hunger Games since the “winner” of the lottery is actually selected to be stoned to death. I read this story in middle school and, if you can believe it, our teacher brought in marshmallows for us to throw at our lottery winner. 

Whether we’re talking about fictional lotteries where someone is a sacrifice or real lotteries where someone walks away with a big check, we recognize the term refers to results that are left to chance. The term “educational lottery,” is one you may not recognize, but it is not new. School administrators, authors, and consultants, Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker coined the term educational lottery over twenty years ago. Educational lotteries refer to when a student’s learning and/or assessment of learning are dependent upon the teacher or parents the student has. In the article, “Culture Shift Doesn’t Occur Overnight–Or Without Conflict” DuFour writes:

Staff members of every school face an inevitable question each year: What happens in our school when, despite our best efforts in the classroom, a student does not learn? 

In traditional schools, the answer is left to the discretion of the individual classroom teacher, who is free to respond in different ways. The support a student will (or will not) receive depends on his or her teacher’s practices, rather than a collective effort and a coordinated response. In truth, most schools play a form of educational lottery with children. 

In professional learning communities, however, schools create a systematic response — processes to monitor each student’s learning and to ensure that a student who struggles is provided additional time and support for learning according to a schoolwide plan...

This coordinated system of support for students never occurs by chance. It can only occur when school leaders work with staff to develop a plan of intervention, carefully monitor the implementation of that plan, and confront those who disregard it. Furthermore, an effective system of intervention is not merely an add-on to existing school structures and assumptions, but represents a natural outgrowth of strong school cultures dominated by certain unifying concepts. (emphasis added)

Therefore, the term “educational lottery” is just as dystopian as the short story, “The Lottery” or the novel The Hunger Games. Why? Because student outcomes are left to chance.

If this term is new to you, you may be wondering, “So what do educational lotteries look like in action?” Here are some common examples I am sure you will relate to. Students are offered extra credit or other opportunities like a free homework pass or the ability to drop their lowest grade if…

  1. They bring in a box of tissues, hand sanitizer, Clorox Wipes, etc.

  2. They participate in the Spirit Week attire (e.g., 70s Day, Crazy Socks, etc.).

  3. They bring in non-perishable goods for the food drive.

Not only do the examples above demonstrate educational lotteries, they also demonstrate educational inequities. After all, we can easily predict that there will be at least some students who are unable to afford their own tissues, let alone purchase tissues for school. We know there will be students who cannot afford or access the clothes to wear on special days during Spirit Week. You do not have to be clairvoyant to predict there are some students in your school who will need to go to the food bank and access the food the school is collecting–they cannot provide food to donate to the drive. 

While some may initially argue, “The students who do not participate are not penalized,” that argument is faulty. Suppose a student has access to benefits (like extra credit or a free homework pass) for participating. In that case, their grade will be inflated because of their non-content-related actions (like bringing in a box of tissues). At the same time, the student who was unable to participate does not have access to both tissues AND grade inflation. Furthermore, consider how grades are used to determine things like class rank, sports eligibility, scholarships, etc. Given how we use grades, it is obvious how educational lotteries are not just problematic regarding grading, but also regarding issues of equity.

Even if the school has students who can all afford to participate and have the means to access the resources in the list above, the problem remains that none of these actions have anything to do with the learning standards for any content area. No state exam or Advanced Placement test or SAT will ever assess the students on these behaviors. As such, educational lotteries happen when teachers assess students on knowledge or behaviors unrelated to the standards. Here are some examples of what that looks like.

  1. Students who get their test signed by a parent are given points on the test.

  2. Students who get points off if they don’t have the “correct” heading or leave paper fringe on a piece of paper they ripped out of their notebook.

  3. Students who get extra credit for submitting an assignment typed or early.

  4. Students who get points taken off for submitting an assignment late.

I think the last example is triggering for many. In addition to the fact that educators have normalized taking off points for work submitted late, educators also lament that without this consequence (a) students won’t turn in work on time and (b) students won’t be prepared for the “real world.” No matter the reasoning, awarding or revoking points to students for actions unrelated to the standards provides a false positive or negative related to students' knowledge of the standards. 

Please know, I am not saying individual people who engage in practices that perpetuate educational lotteries are bad people. They are not. Since these practices are so ubiquitous, we cannot point fingers and say this person and that person are wrong; we can say there is a problem with the system

In practice, finding examples of educational lotteries is unfortunately very easy. What’s hard is finding examples of systems of supports that intentionally serve to counteract embedded and unconsciously endorsed educational lotteries. Here is a comparison of what educational lotteries look like versus systems of supports.


Educational Lottery

Systems of Supports


Every teacher can create their own approach to grading.

Uniform grading processes are used by the whole school so no matter what teacher students have, the approach to late work is identical.

Access to Interventions

Teachers or parents express concerns for the student and the student is assigned interventions.

Students are automatically assigned to intervention services during the day and without missing core instruction based on the students’ performance on designated assessments.

Dismissal from Interventions

Teachers or parents say the child is doing better based on observations so the student is dismissed from interventions.

Students are dismissed from intervention services based on quantitative measures of progress after a designed period of time.

Access to Enrichment or Advanced Courses

Teachers or parents express the child is capable of doing more and the student is placed in the enrichment or advanced class.

Students are selected for advanced/enrichment courses based on pre-determined and uniform quantitative measures.

Again, if you can relate to the methods exemplified in the Educational Lottery column, you are not alone or unique. These practices are so commonplace we do not even question them. However, I invite you to reread each of these practices. When you do, you will see they all focus on what an adult (parent or teacher) says about a student. The systematic practices in the Systems of Supports column use evidence from the student’s knowledge of content to determine the best response to the student’s needs. 

The goal is not to divorce the adults from the student–the goal is to ensure the needs of the student are based on the student. After all, a child who is not truly ready for advancement will likely struggle even if their parent says the child should be in the class. What’s more, what about the child who would truly benefit from advancement but doesn’t have an adult in their life who feels comfortable advocating? That child shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity any more than the child whose parent is comfortable advocating should get the opportunity. Both of these examples demonstrate how a child’s educational experience depends on the adults in that child’s life. And that, my friends, is the definition of an educational lottery.

The term "educational lottery" aptly describes the prevalence of practices in schools that leave student outcomes to chance. These practices, often disguised as harmless incentives or consequences, create an uneven playing field where students' success hinges on factors unrelated to their academic ability. By implementing systems of supports based on data-driven interventions and uniform grading processes, we can dismantle these educational lotteries and ensure every student has a fair shot at success, regardless of the adults in their lives. When this happens, we all win!


P.S. My Catch of the Week is the book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers. While the book was originally published in 1987 (Jeffers advises people to listen to cassettes of audiobooks in their cars, for example), there was information that was new to me. Specifically, Jeffers writes about the concept of thinking about the worst-case scenario saying that we often think the worst-case scenario is the likely outcome. However, that’s not true. The best-case scenario is just as likely. While I suppose there are some people who feel better about thinking about the worst possible outcome, I am not one of them. I have felt lighter and more joyous to focus on the best possible outcome and I encourage you to do the same!

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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