Sunday, November 20, 2011

Moneyball and Education

A claim that I hear a lot -- and one that invariably raises my hackles -- is that "everyone 'knows' who the good teachers and the bad teachers are." I was reading a post over at The Learning Nation, and Cale neatly summed up my thoughts:

When we visit a classroom, we might observe the teacher and their students for a few minutes and walk out saying "That was good teaching!".  Someone could walk into a school and chat with an Administrator for a half hour and say "She really has it going on, what a great Principal."  But how do we REALLY know?
The point, obviously, is that always relying on your gut means you're not always going to get the best result. That's not to discount professional instinct, but it should be weighted in with other useful information -- including data like student test scores.

But thinking about that in terms of Moneyball and using stats to build a better baseball team got me thinking about the way that baseball teams and schools are very, very different…

  • With baseball, it's entirely competitive. It only matters how good your team is because you need to be better than the other teams.
  • Schools involve competition for two reasons: fun, which can also be used to increase student engagement, thereby also hopefully increasing student achievement as well; and limited resources. We can't offer university scholarships to everyone (or, more accurately, we choose to allocate our resources in different ways), so we give them to the students who have excelled the most in academics, athletics, or other endeavors.

  • Baseball is competitive between players in training, but a player may be called upon to make a personal sacrifice for the good of the team in a game. (Bunting?) The player's stats suffer, but the team succeeds. At least, I've heard of this; to be honest, I don't really watch that much baseball.
  • Schools don't typically ask students to make sacrifices like that. Can you imagine seniors being asked to tank some of their classes to avoid having the graduation rate rise so high this year that we can't maintain the rate of improvement next year?

  • In baseball, how each player does matters because it affects the success of the team as a whole.
  • In school, how each student does matters because that IS the success of the school as a whole.

A totally different way of thinking about teacher achievement

I've also been influenced by reading Young Classroom Conquests, a blog by a brand-new teacher. In one of his first posts, he writes about beginning to "understand that I’m not going to be the perfect teacher when I first get into the classroom."

Well, T, let me reveal one of the worst-kept secrets in education to you: you're not going to be the perfect teacher EVER. Doesn't matter how many years of experience you get, how many conferences you attend, how many additional degrees or certifications or awards you attain. It's not gonna happen, because there ain't no such thing.

Each student is an individual, and has his or her own unique areas of strength, struggle, and style. And as a result, even someone who is a truly great teacher in a general sense will not - CAN not - be a great teacher for every student.

The goal of a school should not be to hire the best teachers. A good school should hire a diverse group of excellent teachers (which isn't easy!), and then match each student with the teachers whose styles of instruction and management best suit that student's individual needs (which, of course, is even LESS easy).

It's time to stop pretending that education is about the "big picture." We can't risk losing sight of all the little pictures - because they are what truly matters.

Image thanks to


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