Moneyballing Schools

This week’s TIME School of Thought takes a look at Moneyball and schools. (And while you’re there be sure to check out TIME’s new ideas and opinion vertical).  At one level I’m all for this, of course better use of data can help improve schools.  But there are technical and cultural barriers to address before such tools can really have systemic impact.  And they also need to be balanced with training and judgement. Or put another way, there is a lesson in what happened to this year’s Boston Red Sox that applies to public schools.

Data analysis is so trendy these days that Brad Pitt is getting millions of people to sit through a movie about quantitative methodology. Moneyball, based on the 2003 bestseller by Michael Lewis, traces the rise of new methods that the Oakland A’s used to identify undervalued baseball players so the team could win more games with a smaller payroll. A lot of education reformers are calling for a similar approach to evaluate teachers and improve student performance. Given that I’m a longtime reformer and love baseball, you’d think I’d be all over this idea. But there are some significant strikes against a Moneyball approach to education.

Here’s an easy quantitative method: 1 click on this link here gets you to the entire column for free over at

4 Replies to “Moneyballing Schools”

  1. Andy,

    Very good column. One point you might add is that tests, at least the ones currently in use, are poor measures of student learning and even poorer measures of school performance. Just as sabermetricians found batting average inadequate as a measure of hitting and developed new–and multiple–measures of batting prowess, school systems need to come up with better and more accurate measures of how well schools and students are performing.

  2. I think part of the problem is that school systems seem to stonewall any 3rd party attempt to help students. I’ve seen this first hand as I’ve been turned away at the front door of schools, on the telephone, and by other means when trying to demonstrate an educational product. I’ve heard responses such as “We don’t need tutors, the teachers tutor” and “We do not use help software” and “I don’t believe the software does that”.

    If current methods are not getting it done, why not try outside parties? At least let the parents and students can make the decision to try or ignore 3rd party products instead of having the decision “pre-made” for them by those in the system.

    There are some really incredible products out there with respect to digital education and students and parents know nothing about them because of this “protective web” that schools have towards outside parties.

  3. I think the data quality question was a smart spin on the story. But there are other insights worth gleaning, as well.

    Central to the “Moneyball” story was the question of how to recognize talent. This is a close parallel to the teacher evaluation challenge. How do you determine what a “good teacher” looks like? And once you’ve got them, how do you position your players so they can shine?

    In “Moneyball,”, the scouts were like the K-12 process mavens who come in and observe 1x or 2x or 3x a year. They watch, for a little, and draw conclusions, quite certain that they have reported truthfully, full of conviction that seeing is sufficient.

    Billy Beane and Paul Podesta are like the analytic but street-smart district leaders who believe that the data holds clues of a different sort. The quant-heads who mine for meaning in the numbers that results from human activity — messy, chaotic, imprecise — have their way of seeing. Few would call it scientific evidence. But many quant-heads know that if you keep the “noise” in those data signals in mind, you are likely to infer wiser conclusions than if you disregard the data entirely.

    But if you were an HR boss at a district, what would you be doing to identify those most talented to hire …?

    What would you do to optimize the matching of teachers with the students they are most effective at teaching?

    And what would you do to assign elem teachers to the core subjects they are best at teaching (esp if their gain scores were 3x higher in math than in any other subject)?

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