Moneyball and Texas Public Education

How many of you are baseball fans?  How many of you are familiar with the book or the movie called Moneyball?

For those of you who don’t know the story, it is about Billy Bean, the general manager of the Oakland A’s and his belief in a theory proposed by the author of a book called Baseball Abstract, named Bill James.  In the 70’s and 80’s, Bill James did exhaustive research on the game of baseball and determined, after analyzing that data, that even with the mountain of statistics being collected, many of the traits being valued by professional baseball didn’t matter in the in the most important thing…..winning games.

The problem with Billy Bean implementing this new system, which is the problem with many trailblazers throughout history, is people thought he had lost his mind.  This 100 year-old game didn’t adapt to change very well, even in light of the evidence being put in front of their faces.  This game was full of scouts, managers, and analysts who were all convinced that the evaluation of a future baseball star was part science and part art.  Bill James and Billy Bean proved them all wrong and fundamentally changed the way baseball players are evaluated and compensated.

I’d like to quote a few passages from the book and then give you my perspective of what this means for public education in Texas.

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The book says, “Baseball was theatre.  But it could not be artful unless its performances could be properly understood.  The meaning of these performances depended on the clarity of the statistics that measured them; bad fielding statistics were like a fog hanging over the stage.  That raised an obvious question:  why would people in charge allow professional baseball to be distorted so obviously?  The answer was equally obvious:  they believed they could judge a players performance simply by watching it.”

Public education today is political theatre.  Candidates and elected officials like to talk about the “downward trend” in public education, or how Texas’ students score lower on the SAT test than other states, or many other statistics that distort the issue so badly that people start to believe it.  Candidates and elected officials believe they can judge a student or a school district’s performance simply by looking at the score on one standardized test given on one day out of the 180-day school year.  This is a bad fog hanging over public education.

The obvious question is why would people in charge allow public education be distorted so obviously?  Politics.  Some want to tear down public education to make an argument for change, for vouchers, more standardized testing, or more mandates from Austin or Washington, D.C.

I’m here to tell you that our public schools are doing things like never before, with more kids and less resources than ever before.  But my message is still a message of change, because we can do better, our kids can do better, and our teachers can do better if we will stop asking our local public schools to make bricks without straw while being subjected to a never-ending list of rules and regulations from Austin and Washington D.C.  As I have said many times, there are a lot of candidates that talk about local control, but there aren’t enough elected officials who vote for it.

Oh, by the way, the reason our SAT scores look lower than other states is we have a much higher percentage of our students take the SAT test, not just those students who are going to college.  So, when you see that statistic, know that it is comparing almost ALL of our students with only the college-bound students of other states.

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The book says, “Think about it.  One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter.  The difference is one hit every two weeks.”

Now think about this.  You absolutely cannot tell, by visiting a school, the difference between an exemplary school and a recognized or acceptable school.  The difference is often times a small handful of kids and their score on one subject area of the TAKS test.  For example, my son’s junior high is rated on 20 different criteria that include test scores on reading, writing, social studies, math, science, English-language learner progress, commended performance, and performance of White, Black, Hispanic and Economically disadvantaged students.  Of those 20 criteria, the junior high was ranked “exemplary” on 13, “recognized” on 6, and academically acceptable on 1.  So, according to the Texas Accountability System, the ENTIRE junior high was ranked academically acceptable and that’s what the local newspaper prints and that’s what the community is led to believe about my son’s junior high.  That’s right, his entire junior high of approximately 300 kids was ranked based on the score in one subject of 5 students.  Talk about distorting what is really going on.

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The books says, “The problem,” wrote James, “is that baseball statistics are not pure accomplishments of men against other men, which is what we are in the habit of seeing them as.  They are accomplishments of men in combination with their circumstances.”

In public education, the original intent of the TAKS test was to serve as a general measuring tool to compare one school district to the next with a snapshot in time.  What it has become is a blunt instrument used to beat up teachers and students that also has the ability to divide communities and affect local real estate values.  The test score and the accountability rating system have been used to show accomplishments of kids against other kids, rather than an indication of accomplishments of students in combination with their circumstances.  Logic tells you that Highland Park schools are going to perform better on a test than school in inner city Dallas.  Why?  The circumstances of the students are vastly different.  Unfortunately, the accountability system, in its goal to assign one adjective for the local realtor’s listing, doesn’t care about those circumstances.  It just wants to show pure accomplishments of students against other students.  This doesn’t work for baseball and it doesn’t work for public education or our students.

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The book says, “I am a mechanic with numbers, tinkering with the records of baseball games to see how the machinery of the baseball offense works.  I do not start with the numbers any more than a mechanic starts with a monkey wrench.  I start with the game, with the things that I can see there and the things people say there.  And I ask:  Is it true?”

What is the goal of public education?  In my opinion, it is to prepare students to be productive, contributing members of society and to prepare them for the next chapter of their lives, whether that chapter is college or the workforce.  This is what is true about public education in Texas.  The goal is not simply to see how well a kid can absorb information and then fill in bubble sheets once a year to be measured.  The standardized test is the monkey wrench and it’s where classrooms all over the state start, because that’s what the Legislature and the Texas Education Agency tell them is true.  It’s just not true.

The ironic part of all of this is there isn’t a single college or university that looks at TAKS test scores as part of their admissions process.  It isn’t “true” in their mind.  I’ll bet if I polled the membership of the local chamber of commerce, there’s not a single employer that looks at TAKS test scores as part of the job application process.  It isn’t “true” in the minds of employers.  So why are we told it’s true?  I wish I had a good answer for you.

We need to start with the game, the game of life.  We need to analyze the things we can see and the things we say about the goals of public education and ask, “Is it true?  Does it matter?  Is that our mission?”  If it isn’t, we need to fundamentally change the accountability system and replace the rhetoric about our schools and the job they are doing with the fundamental truth about our schools and our students.

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The book says, “Baseball keeps copious records, and people talk about them and argue about them and think about them a great deal.  Why doesn’t anybody use them?  Why doesn’t anybody say, in the face of this contention or that one, “Prove it”?

This issue dovetails with the previous one.  Public education is drowning in data.  If you can think it, it’s probably collected and printed in a report.  The question is, “Why doesn't anybody use it?  Or, if they do use it, does it prove or support anything related to the goal of public education?”

One example of this is class size.  Those who want to starve our schools to death or constantly point out the shortcomings of public education want you to believe that class-size doesn’t matter.  They want you to believe that the only thing that matters is having a good teacher in the classroom.  I agree that having a good teacher is important and I’m not going to try to tell you that the quality of the teacher doesn’t matter, but I am going to tell you that the data is undeniable that class size matters.  The proof is there.  Let me give you one example of the proof.

The Texas Education Agency recently reported that 14 school districts submitting applications for a class-size waiver due to financial challenges were restricted in the number of classes that can exceed the 22-student cap, because they received low performance ratings from the state last year.  

If larger class size does not matter, why would the TEA believe it necessary to hold these troubled districts to the lower number of students in a class?  The TEA obviously knows that more effective learning occurs in a smaller class setting.

I’ll bet if you visit the website of most, if not all, private schools, you will see that they talk about their student to teacher ratio.  Why?  If it doesn’t matter, why would they talk about it?  It does matter.  Everybody knows it does.

The problem isn’t that the Texas Legislature doesn't want to USE the data.  The problem is that they don’t want to pay for what the data says is necessary.  So we are stuck with people arguing about the data and trying to re-frame the discussion in an effort to avoid the obvious.

As the book says, “They were trying to manipulate the game instead of letting the game come to them, said Billy.  The math works.  But no matter how many times you prove it, you will always have to prove it again.”

Just like professional baseball, sometimes, it isn’t enough to simply prove it.  The next challenge is to implement what the evidence proves.  The Boston Red Sox were the next team to adopt Billy Bean’s strategy and they won their first World Series title the next year.

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Intelligence about baseball had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats.  What James’ wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point.  The point was understanding.  The point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost.  “I wonder, James wrote, “If we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.”

This is my greatest fear for the current state of public education in Texas today.  We are becoming so numbed by the numbers and emphasis on one standardized test, that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any relevant knowledge that might result from them.  Too many interested parties have numbers that they say prove their argument.  The goal should always be to assimilate knowledge from those numbers in a way that is meaningful.

In the interest of bringing some relevant numbers to the discussion, I want to share with you a few facts that you may not have heard.

The 2010 graduating class in Texas had the highest graduation rate in the past 10 years.  The exact opposite of what some like to say is the “downward trend” in public education.

The percentage of administrators in the average school district has NOT exploded, as some would have you believe.  It has increased from 3.4% to 3.8% over the last 10 years, even with the unending addition of state and federal requirements that take more and more resources out of the classroom.

Some want to tell you that there is a 1:1 ratio of teachers to administrators.  It’s just not true.  What is true is there is a 1:1 ratio of teachers to the following list of education staff:  principals, superintendents, coaches, counselors, librarians, nurses, speech pathologists, cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drives, maintenance, grant writers, testing coordinators, teaching aides, etc.  Keep in mind that many of these positions are part-time positions, but they show up as an employee of the district.

Has there been an increase in these positions?  Absolutely.  Why?  Once upon a time, every state in the country provided a Model T education.  You could have anything you want, as long as it was black with 4-doors on it.  Well, just like the auto industry, public education has become much more complex in its offerings.  Just to name a few, we have robotics, auto mechanics, HVAC, Ag programs, debate, gifted and talented programs, special needs programs, and some districts have over 100 native languages spoken in the home.  Comparing staffing statistics with the 70’s or even 80’s is irrelevant at best and misleading at worse, especially when the staffing requirements are largely out of the control of the local school districts but dictated by Austin or Washington.

Now lets talk about school funding so we can all come to a point of understanding what is really happening with school finance in Texas.

In 2009, the total appropriation to TEA for public K-12 schools was $25.9 billion - $25.8 in 2010 - $25.6 in 2011 - $25.4 for 2012 - $21.9 for 2013.  That is a real dollar appropriations decrease of $4 billion when you compare 2013 to 2009.

Because of enrollment growth, public schools educate about 80,000 more students each year.  Just to keep up with the cost of educating these additional students, the appropriation for year 2012 should be $27 billion and for year 2013 should be $27.4 billion if you keep the same dollar amount per student as 2009.

Therefore, this budget falls $7.1 billion short of covering just enrollment growth from 2009 to 2013.

If, in addition to enrollment growth, if we include a modest inflation factor of 2% annually in the costs borne by public schools since 2009 (gasoline costs alone would probably exceed this 2%), to cover that inflation as well as enrollment growth, the appropriation for year 2012 should be $28.6 billion and for year 2013 should be $29.4 billion.

At the end of the day, the appropriation for year 2012 and 2013 is, altogether, $10.8 billion short of staying even with enrollment and inflation during this biennial budget.  This represents a reduction of over 20% in real dollars.

We can do better.  Our students, our teachers, our parents and our communities support our local schools and know the many wonderful things happening there.  What we need to do is elect more people who are willing to prove that education is their first priority, not just give it lip service.

Now, who’s responsible for all of the things I’ve addressed here today?

The book says, “Baseball doesn’t subject its executives to anything like the pressures of playing baseball, or even of running a business.”  It also says, “There are no real standards, because no one wants to put too fine a point on the question:  what qualifies these people for this job?”

Who are the executives of the public education system?  Local school boards?  Superintendents?  Teachers?  I don’t think so.  To call our local public schools “independent” school districts is like believing in Bigfoot.  It just isn’t realistic.  The executives of the public education system are the United States Congress, the Texas Legislature, the State Board of Education, the Texas Education Agency and the National Education Agency.  These three groups are responsible for the vast majority of the rules, regulations, policies and procedures that impact our local schools.  If you don’t like what’s being done to our schools, hold us accountable and look for candidates for these offices who “qualify for the job” of improving public education in Texas.  Put a fine point on what you think qualifies a person for the job and then spend 5-10 reviewing campaign websites.  I bet you’ll find a wealth of information about candidates and who is treating education as their priority and who is just giving it lip service.