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Moneyball or Moneylearning?

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September 27, 2011 05:53 pm

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MoneyballI admit, after nearly 15 years in the field I have grown a bit tired of all the metaphors we try to apply to education. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear someone say the No Child Left Behind act forces all kids to jump over a high bar in track, or something like that. For the record, asking all kids to be prepared for college and career is NOT the same as asking random athletic feats of them. Or some advocates claim that education should be more like medicine, that doctors train for years in clinical settings,  have a general level of shared content knowledge, and are in touch with the latest research. Yes, doctors study longer, and yes, doctors engage in long, work-based learning that would be a great model for teachers. But news flash: the quality of care you get varies greatly by which doctor you go to. For example, in the pediatric field, some doctors are on board with delayed vaccinations schedules, some are in tune with the latest developments in detecting autism, and some are not. If you get cancer, are you going to just go to your local hospital or are you going to check out all your options, and if you can afford it, get checked out at Sloan Kettering or Mayo Clinic? And yup, low-income families are disadvantaged in health care, too.

That being said, when I saw the new movie Moneyball this weekend I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the film and education. The movie is based on the true story of Billy Beane, a Major League Baseball general manager played by Brad Pitt who built a winning team on a tiny budget by using statistical data to find the best and cheapest players.

When Pitt’s character tries to bring hard data into the room full of baseball scouts with 30+ years of experience, he finds resistance as the scouts talk about the “art” of finding good players and how their knowledge can’t be replaced by data. However, pressed by a lack of resources, he persists and uses data to identify the best players he can get for his money, eventually improves the outcomes for his team. Even better, he’s more cost effective – the high-rolling Yankees pay far more per run than the poorly funded Oakland As.

The concept reminded me of some of the debates surrounding the use of data for instruction. Fortunately, we’re to the point in American education where we know we need to do it, but there is still resistance from those who feel we can’t sum up a child’s educational needs in statistics or test scores. To some extent that’s true – anyone who has seen a teacher in action knows that it is definitely an art. But can we be more cost-effective and get better results for our children by using data? You bet.

The same goes for the use of technology in learning. Not just data, but data-driven systems like those used by School of One and Carpe Diem and many other schools to really fine-tune a child’s educational experience. If we have the data, why not use it to get better outcomes for the children who are already at such a disadvantage? Why not let teachers take the power of that data and use it to be even more effective, just like the batters on Brad Pitt’s team who looked at their strike zone data and figured out they should really only be swinging at the low inside balls.

Firms like ERS are out there helping districts make the best use of their resources. In these uncertain budget times, all schools and districts should be looking at every piece of data available to figure out how they can best use the resources they have to make a difference for their students. We’ve come a long way in ensuring that states have the data systems to make that possible. Now we just need to use them – and the outcome is far more important than the World Series. As Brad Pitt’s character says, “All that matters is that you win the last game of the season.” In education, the equivalent is ensuring that every child graduates career and college ready.

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a the Alliance’s senior policy associate. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/territhinks.

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