Jonny Gomes And Education Data

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RealClearEd Today 04/02/2014: Scandal-Scarred D.C. Mayor Concedes Race

By RealClearEducation

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, April 2. At RealClearEducation this morning we have the day’s top headlines in education news, commentary, analysis, and reports, as well as a piece by TNTP’s Tim Daly, who says Northwestern’s move to unionize student athletes is “dignified” and “preposterously overdue.” As always, we’ll update throughout the day.

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Today is Daniel Okrent’s birthday. He’s known in some circles as the former New York Times Public Editor. And in others, especially at this time of year, he’s celebrated as the creator of Rotisserie Baseball. That game, more commonly known as “fantasy” baseball, has helped fuel the obsession with data that now characterizes baseball and other sports. But baseball, while “moneyballed,” still isn’t a purely data-driven game.

On Monday the Boston Red Sox lost their season opener to the Baltimore Orioles. They did it without the services of their left fielder, Jonny Gomes, a hero of the 2013 Red Sox team that won the World Series. Gomes didn’t start the game because Baltimore started a right-handed pitcher and other outfielders had better numbers against righties. That decision is being second-guessed among the Red Sox faithful after the loss and especially because of manager John Farrell’s decision not to pinch hit Gomes at a crucial point late in the game. Why? Because during last year’s playoff run, Gomes played and produced against all kinds of pitching, and the team was 10-1 when he did.

Gomes is a spark plug. He helps ignite teams. Many baseball fans think it’s more than coincidental that he’s played for four division winning teams in the last six seasons — the only player in the American League to have done so. Some of those teams, like last season’s Red Sox, were turnaround projects. Gomes has respectable numbers at the plate and solid defense in the field but more than that, he exudes an almost ridiculous tenacity (he once waited 27 hours after a fluke heart attack to see a doctor, even sleeping through the night) and a desire to win (you don’t see a lot of unassisted double plays by left fielders, but Gomes turned one in during the 15th inning of a game last summer). He also has sartorial flair. Gomes arrived at The White House yesterday to meet the President and celebrate the Red Sox’s championship season wearing a red, white, and blue suit. He sported a military helmet during postseason celebrations last year.

In education there is a lot of attention to data right now and widespread concern about student privacy and data security. A survey of education policy experts by Whiteboard Advisors earlier this year found that 73 percent believe there are companies operating in the educator sector in ways that violate privacy laws. Yet there is also widespread agreement that better use of educational data can provide greater personalization and customization for students and increase educational productivity. Getting the balance right is on the agenda in a number of states.

At the same time, a conversation about data is playing out in the debate about teacher effectiveness. Underneath the strident and often misleading rhetoric is a more serious question: How should policies balance human judgment and discretion with data? In most professional fields, managers use data and their own judgment and make decisions. That’s a tough sell in education with its love of metrics and compliance and its adversarial management and labor context.

It holds the field back because a culture that respects the intangibles would be complicated, and perhaps messier, but also help build a more genuine profession for teachers. The best baseball managers balance data with experience and judgment. Besides, fantasy teams don’t have character or soul. As Gomes told The Boston Globe during spring training last month:

“When you’re building a team, I’m last on the list because, when the lights go out, you don’t see the player grind out at-bats or run hard to first base every time. Or see the player respect the game and his teammates… or see the way the player approaches the game, the work ethic.”

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