Can We ‘Moneyball’ Education? — Part 2

Can We ‘Moneyball’ Education? — Part 2

In Part 1, we explored how we might ‘moneyball’ education — apply some of the systematic, data driven principles pioneered by the Oakland A’s baseball team to maximize their ability to win in the face of budget constraints.  The system required using objective means rather than human perception and tradition to make decisions that improved the team’s performance over the course of the season. Today’s post is a continuation of that exploration.

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Now that we’ve looked at gifted practices, let’s turn our attention to the other end of the spectrum to apply another ‘moneyball’ strategy:  accelerate rather than remediate kids who are behind.  Remediation comes with a host of problems. It keeps the student working on below-grade level concepts and skills as their classmates continue to make progress. Sometimes this logic is applied to whole groups of students, especially when someone has decided that they need “the basics” before they can progress to higher level thinking.  This has the effect of increasing the gap between the student and their grade level peers and – often – of condemning them to the least engaging and challenging types of work. The goal needs to be bringing the student up to grade level as quickly as possible. And it requires intensive intervention as early as possible while gaps are small. This is accomplished by having them do grade level work with extensive tutoring and other supports to be successful and by helping them do work requiring higher order thought.  I say it often but it bears repeating: students don’t need the basics to do higher order challenging work.  At CMSi, we’ve seen examples of meaningful writing done in Kindergarten before children can actually write, and we’ve observed teachers leading students — even very young students — through the reasoning process to develop their analytical skills using hands-on, engaging activities to anchor concepts.  Identify the critical prerequisite skills, teach them concurrently with engaging, challenging grade level content, and find ways in every content area to help children with higher order thinking skills when other skills aren’t quite there yet.

Since tradition often gets in the way of best practice, I’m proposing two additional ways to moneyball education. The first is to move back to direct phonics instruction in reading.   Because of space concerns I can’t go deep on this one other than to say that there is a veritable avalanche of data going back decades — decades —  demonstrating that “balanced literacy” programs aren’t very balanced and may actually harm students’ ability to learn to read.  They are particularly damaging for poor students.  These programs are beloved by teachers and have had a death grip on the reading program marketplace since the early aughts.  It’s time to follow the research and get back to sound-letter correspondence, spelling patterns, and decoding, no matter how warm and fuzzy those other programs make people feel.*  Balanced literacy needs to be just that: a balance of direct phonics instruction and engaging reading activities that help children make meaning of what they are reading.  The second way is to deploy the most experienced staff in the areas of greatest need.  Traditionally, the most experienced teachers end up in the schools with the least need – students are performing well, discipline issues are minimal, parents are involved, funding is usually ample.  Placing the best teachers in at-risk schools flies in the face of how we’ve done things in education for decades. But rather than treating these schools or classes as a reward for experience and competence, we need to use those skills to address the greater learning needs in schools with more economic disadvantage, more achievement gaps, and more discipline issues. After all, it doesn’t make sense to put your at-risk staff (new, inexperienced teachers) with your most at-risk students. And the kids in the higher-achieving schools will be fine; kids with more parental income and parental educational attainment have multiple redundant systems for getting content and concepts through curated experiences and tutoring and more concentrated parental assistance with homework. It’s the kids in the poor schools that need the best teaching available to them because they don’t have those external resources.  If they don’t get it in school, they often don’t get it at all. Studies have shown that just having an experienced kindergarten teacher can increase a student’s total career earnings by $300,000 and improve overall health, relationship stability, job quality, and even their chances of owning a home in a safe, economically stable neighborhood. These are not inconsiderable things. Now imagine the effects if all the teachers a disadvantaged child encountered were experienced and competent….the potential for eradicating generational poverty and improving a child’s lifetime standard of living goes through the roof.

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Lastly, in our moneyball quest, we need to work harder to attract and retain high quality staff.  In the past, conventional wisdom said that if good teachers want to go, let them go; after all, we had an almost inexhaustible pool of new and inexperienced teachers waiting in the wings to fill the void.  No more.  Covid 19 and a raft of new, teacher-hostile legislation, coupled with contentious school boards and parents, have decimated the ranks of teachers and greatly reduced the numbers of those entering the profession.  Many, many districts began 2022 with a staffing deficit and some states have scrambled to reduce requirements just to put bodies in classrooms.  It is what it is for now, but long-term there will be consequences for children’s learning.  Instead of treating teachers as either an unlimited resource or teaching as a job anyone can do, it’s time to recognized that teaching is a skilled profession that requires extensive training and practice, deep understanding of the content being delivered, and support from the district that allows them to do their best work.  We need to pull out all the stops to keep good teachers in the classroom because their effect on learning is powerful.

For the Oakland A’s, the moneyball system worked. They didn’t make it to the World Series, but they did make it to the playoffs multiple times, something that should not have been possible given their budget.  This, to me, is key.  Many times teachers and administrators look at populations of kids or even individual kids and decide that they’re not going to make it; the obstacles are too great and there’s no budget.  The A’s proved that by stepping out of the boxes of assumption and the-way-it’s-always-been, success was possible, even predictable, over the long term.**  Another team that applied this system did make it to the World Series and win – the Boston Red Sox won their first championship in 86 years in 2004. For education, if we stop blindly following conventional wisdom, stop slavishly following traditional practices, and stop relying on human perception and opinion to identify potential, we might see a lot more kids making it to the playoffs  — and even the championship — than we ever thought possible.

That’s what I want for 2023.


*Look for more on this in upcoming posts.

**This isn’t a throwaway comment; changes need time to take effect and are going to be the most powerful with the youngest students because while they aren’t blank slates, their gaps are smaller. It’s no accident that Moneyball worked so well in baseball and less well in football; baseball has the longest season of any sport and so has far more time for changes to work.  We  have to commit to the long haul.

If your district would like help assessing practices and performance in your schools, Contact Us!  We would love to help you improve learning for all students.


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