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What Moneyball Can Teach Us About Education

Posted: 10/09/11 12:23 PM ET

At a time when Alexander Russo, who has long been sympathetic to the accountability movement, predicts that the "reform 'bubble'" is bursting, the movie Moneyball provides a fantastic opportunity to review what worked with data-driven reforms and what they failed to accomplish.

The contemporary school "reform" movement came of age as numerous professions were under the sway of "data-driven" methods. During the stock market boom of the late-1990s, some speculated that data was making the business cycle obsolete, while others argued that digital systems could be more accurate than doctors in diagnosing many diseases. Today, after some of those methods produced the financial "bubble," prompting the "Great Recession," they have lost their luster. And the ideal of data-driven medicine has largely been replaced by hope for data-informed health care. Only in education does the simplistic faith in numbers still dominate.

The data boom culminated around the time of Michael Lewis' Moneyball. My students loved Lewis' work on the pioneering use of baseball statistics and other cutting-edge phenomena. I would underline the key passages in Lewis' New York Times Magazine articles, distribute photocopies and read them aloud, as the students read silently. The kids loved his quirky tales of morality and future shock. Our baseball team's captain borrowed copies about Lewis' own "Coach Fitz," and retaught the lesson to his fellow ballplayers.

The students' favorite was Lewis' account of a fifteen year old prosecuted for stock market fraud. And being teenagers, they loved the tales of the pride that went before the fall of Enron. My inner city kids mastered the nuances of statistical shenanigans that would have challenged many collegiate upperclassmen (Aaron Sorkin was a screenwriter on Moneyball and the issues he raised in The West Wing also contributed to profound discussions).

Those wonderful classes were a product of more than Lewis' work, the teacher, and even the students. Virtually every teaching technique was "borrowed" from colleagues. I stole tips from outstanding professional development workshops for the teaching of reading and managing the lessons. My socratic questioning was informed by the wisdom of wonderful critical thinking coaches who had taken me under their wings.

My students were the beneficiaries of a great chain of learning, of an awesome tradition of exchanging ideas. Not all teachers, of course, were on the same page. The history of education is just as full of conflicts between our field's traditionalists and progressives as are the fields of medicine, economics, or baseball.

So, not surprisingly, the part of Moneyball that caught the public's imagination was the tension between old-fashioned baseball scouts and innovators. After all, change has been just as slow in baseball as in accounting and education. As Moneyball explained, Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, placed an unsentimental emphasis on "on- base percentage," as opposed to traditional tactics such as base-stealing and relying on "clutch hitting." James now says that those conclusions have held up well, but he admits to having missed the importance of defense -- of not letting the opponents put numbers on the board.

Metaphorically speaking, school "reformers" made the same mistake. The focus of data-driven accountability was on increasing test scores and accountability hawks put a lot of points on the scoreboard (No Child Left Behind test scores have soared while more reliable metrics have not, which is a classic sign of a bubble). "Reformers" claim credit for rising standardized test numbers, but they ignore the scores that they gave up through harebrained experiments.

"Reformers" invested in test prep, curriculum narrowing, and questionable "credit recovery" programs to increase the standardized test pass rates and graduation stats. They ignored the costs of those tactics, however. "Reformers" thus committed a series of "unforced errors" that have compromised the integrity of the learning process.

In retrospect, much of the damage done to education (and Wall Street) by true believers in data is a result of misreading its role. The primary purpose of sabermetrics (and the Wall Street tactics that helped inspire it) is reducing mistakes. As Billy Beane explained, the deal that you do not make will not kill an organization. It is the high-dollar investments that don't turn out that can wreck a team. Beane used data to avoid costly errors.

In other words, the founding principle of baseball reformers was consistent with the fundamental tenet of traditionalists. The way to build championships is to eliminate foul-ups. Innovators and the "old school" agree that victory goes to the team that is fundamentally sound. The key to building great traditions is high-quality coaching. Excellent coaches learn from new discoveries, and incorporate them into making the game better.

Unfortunately, school "reformers" did not take the time to understand the rhythm of the educational game. They were too impatient to learn from an evidence-based debate between the intuitions and professional judgments of veteran educators and the insights of data-savvy newcomers. Devotees of data-driven accountability failed to savor the timeless process where new evidence is subjected to peer review. They gambled on a series of high-risk "reforms" and, in frustration, they turned to scripted, "teacher-proof" policies. Their worst legacy has been top-down systems in which wonks, with little feel for the game, micromanage the pace of instruction, and quash discussion.

And that should be the lesson of Moneyball. Teaching is coaching and coaching is teaching. We should celebrate the clash between the new and the old. Each generation of educators and students (and doctors, financiers, and athletes) should build on this tradition of debate.

And by the way, when our classes debated Michael Lewis' body of work, we did so with the door open. Anyone in the hall -- students, teachers, and visitors -- was free to join in. As we created new traditions, our success stood on the shoulders of traditionalists and progressives, who used subjective and quantitative evidence to create a profound scholarly heritage. It is a shame that "reformers" did not join us, and see how their statistics would hold up on the field of intellectual competition. It is not too late, however, for reformers to slow down, listen, appreciate the flow of the game, and use data to complement the human process of teaching and coaching.

 

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