Published Online: August 14, 2007
Why Education Reform Is Like Baseball
Thoughts for the Days of Summer
By Jeanne Century
If you are looking for an entertaining summer read, what could be more promising than a David-and-Goliath baseball story? That’s what I expected as I opened Michael Lewis’ 2003 best-seller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. But before I had finished the first chapter, I realized this was more than a sports story, and that my hopes of being distracted from the work of improving education were not going to be realized.
Moneyball tells many stories, one of which is how General Manager Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s used an otherwise disregarded statistic—on-base percentage—as a strategy for selecting players. His scouts were accustomed to the more traditional approach to finding baseball stars: traveling across the country and recruiting those who looked “right.” Beane’s analytic approach was decidedly unpopular, and the story of its implementation before the 2002 season is yet another illustration of the fact that, whether in baseball or education, systems are stubborn.
Moneyball tells about a system that did not want to change; of practices held steadfast in tradition; and of how a leader, with the right motivation and insight, innovated for success. So, as this season winds down and you sit watching nine innings, consider these nine lessons for educators drawn from an unlikely place: America’s simple favorite pastime—baseball.
1. Don’t go for the home runs … just get on base and the rest will come. Beane didn’t win baseball games by hoping for home runs. Home runs are rare, and hope doesn’t win games. He understood that individual players don’t win games; teams do—when they work together in a process of creating runs. In education, we identify isolated strategies that we hope will be our home runs. But experience tells us that a better approach is to get solidly and clearly “on base.” Then, the system can work, each piece supporting the other, stepping up when necessary and stepping back to “sacrifice” if that is what will win the game. The only way the system can work is if everyone buys in and does his or her part.
In a quickly changing world, practices that once worked can become ineffective artifacts, and those most familiar to us may be the very ones that are in fact standing in the way of improvement.
2. Money is important, but it is not the answer. Beane had to spend his team’s meager $40 million wisely; other clubs had several times that amount. So he set out to identify ways he could use his money more efficiently. As Lewis writes, “[I]n professional baseball it still matters less how much money you have than how well you spend it.” Instead of investing in one big star, Beane sought out those players who were regularly and consistently getting on base (see lesson one). We in education need to find ways to get on base. Small steps are enough if they are consistent and well informed. The smartest strategies don’t necessarily cost the most money. Indeed, some of them don’t cost anything at all.
3. Be willing to change the things that are the most familiar. When it came time to make changes, Beane identified a part of his organization that looked most like the others—his scouting department—and that is where he made changes that were key for his success. Educators can take a lesson from this. In a quickly changing world, practices that once worked can become ineffective artifacts, and those most familiar to us may be the very ones that are in fact standing in the way of improvement.
4. Decisions should be made with personal investment, but not overpersonalized. In baseball, the people who make the decisions generally have played the game at one time or another and, as Lewis puts it, they “generalize wildly from their own experience.” This sounds familiar? We all have personal experience with education, and it is easy to think that what worked for us will work for others. We need to make good decisions grounded in personal experience and beliefs. But we need to recognize that beliefs built on the experience of one person, or even a few people, may not hold the answers for the country as a whole.
5. Make decisions based on experience and evidence, not on impressions. Lewis tells us that baseball scouts had a dislike of short, right-handed pitchers and a “distaste” for fat catchers. But Beane looked past appearances and turned to performance. While scouts chose players without looking very far below the surface, Beane looked at past performance and made informed decisions based on what was most likely to happen next. In other words, he paid attention to history to inform his shaping of the future. In education, we need to hold our goals clearly in our sights while remembering to look below the surface and consider all that we know. Informed by our history, we can look optimistically forward.
6. The changing environment makes old rules obsolete. Lewis notes that some practices of baseball are vestiges of a time long gone when players wore no gloves and fields were rough expanses of dirt. Likewise, the education system was invented at a time when the world looked quite different, and yet, the instruction and function of our schools often looks very much the same. Even as ball fields have built lights and digital scoreboards, the object of the game has stayed the same. Likewise, the object of our “game” stays the same, but the setting is very different. We need to discard the obsolete practices and find those that will keep us apace in our growing world.
7. There is resistance to new knowledge and ideas. The book explains that as baseball statistics became more sophisticated and available, those inside the sport relegated them to a “cult” of users. Lewis notes that “there was a profusion of new knowledge and it was ignored. … [Y]ou didn’t have to look at big-league baseball very closely to see its fierce unwillingness to rethink anything.” This sounds painfully familiar. In education, we say we want to innovate and improve. But saying it and acting on it are two different things. Few are willing to let go of the familiar to take the risk of embracing the promising, but still unknown.
8. People do things even when there is evidence that they don’t work. Oddly, in baseball and education alike, people do things even though it’s clear that they don’t work. In baseball, for example, players might steal bases even when it seems to be statistically pointless or even self-defeating. In education, we know that an incremental, evidence-based approach will get us where we want to go. And yet, we continue to implement popular (albeit unproven) strategies on unrealistic timelines because that is what the constituents want, even if, in the end, it won’t help win the game.
9. A system is a system is a system. Lewis quotes the innovative baseball statistician Voros McCracken, who once wrote: “The problem with major-league baseball … is that it’s a self-populating institution. … [T]hey aren’t equipped to evaluate their own systems. They don’t have the mechanisms to let in the good and get rid of the bad. They either keep everything or get rid of everything, and they rarely do the latter.”
As I sat in the warm summer sun, I had to check the cover of the book, just to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up a book about education.
Jeanne Century is the director of science education and research and evaluation at the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education.