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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Value Added Maddness

From Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sykes

Full disclosure. I know Billy Beane, the inspiration for Moneyball.

In another world I was part of some three decades ago as an athletic trainer in professional baseball, I was there when Beane arrived as a young kid from a San Diego high school. He didn’t play long in the major leagues, but then again, the vast majority of players who sign professional contracts do not. Making it to there – even for a day – is no small feat. Smart guy, Beane. He could have gone to Stanford and might have been John Elway’s replacement. We’ll never know what might have been, but even Beane now says of his 1980 decision to take the New York Mets’ cash instead of going to Stanford was the “only decision he would ever make in his life about money.”


Only within the creative minds of our greatest story-tellers could Beane’s life story have been written. Even Beane would be surprised to hear the principles of Moneyball used to explain today’s ed policy debate. But Rick Hess has done so. And done so quite effectively.

Here’s the problem. Author Michael Lewis made it real clear in the book (though it’s less clear in the movie, which features scouts talking about whether players have attractive girlfriends) that the problem in baseball prior to Beane’s revolution in Oakland was not an absence of data. In fact, baseball has been a geek haven for generations because of all its statistics. The problem? The stats in question–typically home runs, runs batted in, and batting average–are flawed measures of individual performance. They routinely understate (or overstate) a player’s value by ignoring the stadium he plays in, how often his teammates get on base, how selective he is at the plate, how well he fields, and so on. A big part of the problem wasn’t a lack of numbers; it was a reliance on overly simplistic measures. Consequently, players who hit a lot of home runs or who hit for a high average were massively overpriced, while players who walked a lot or hit a lot of doubles were undervalued.

This is where value-added enthusiasts come in. Value-added is a potentially very useful (if limited) tool, but it’s one that’s still in its relatively infancy. It can tell us what we might otherwise overlook or fail to see, helping correct our tendency to overvalue or undervalue certain teachers and techniques. The problem is our impatience and, sometimes, hubris. There’s a sense among too many would-be reformers that our new edu-statistics are ready for prime-time, and even an inclination to imagine that they can render judgment and common sense superfluous. Nope.

Hess may not like me taking this step with his point, but here goes: The celebrity, cash and political connections of Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates combined with said “edu-statistics” are what is driving today’s public education policy. Rhee’s (and now Florida’s) 50-50 teacher evaluation model; Bush’s tortured school grade metric; and Gates merit pay schemes are embedded in the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top. Whether or not No Child Left Behind is reauthorized matters little. The Rhee-Bush-Gates-Duncan alliance would give up anything- including perhaps even teacher tenure - except for the sort of value added edu-statistics that come from test data. Hess finishes:

It’s not that “moneyball” is a bad analogy. It’s a terrific analogy. But you’ve got to use it right. And I fear that the value-added enthusiasts who imagine they’re right now gearing up to play moneyball in K-12 are actually going to find, to their chagrin, that they’re the potbellied scouts hoping to sign an overpriced free agent because the guy drove in 100 runs for the Yankees last year.

The recent passing of Oakland Raiders’ iconic owner Al Davis reminded me of his timeless, “just win, baby.” Davis would likely appreciate Hess’ analogy. He’d rather have won ugly than lost pretty. What good are Jeb Bush’s school grades - or FCAT data for that matter -when 55% of students who graduate from Florida’s high schools need remediation in reading, writing or math? As most end up dropping out, it matters little if they came from an “A” school. They didn’t win anything.

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