A Lesson Education Can Learn From Baseball



For years baseball clamored about RBI men. RBI men were the cream of the crop. The guys who got the big contracts. However, about a decade ago, baseball guys started to look at things a little differently.

In 2003, the book Moneyball was released. It outlined the strategies of the Oakland A’s – a team with no money that was miraculously competing with some of the biggest dollar teams in baseball like the Yankee’s. Everyone wanted to know how.

Baseball is a game of numbers, a game of statistics (a field education is increasingly dealing with) and it always has been. In the late 90s and early 21st century, the Oakland A’s with Billy Beane at the helm started to question some of these statistics. Why were RBIs such a big deal? Who cares if a pitcher wins 20 games? Little did Beane know, these questions would revolutionize baseball front offices in the coming years.

One team that has embraced this sort of thinking is the Boston Red Sox. Much of their success in the 00s can be attributed to this new line of thinking. General Manager, Theo Epsteins’ recent quote about right fielder, J.D. Drew further illustrates the changing thinking in baseball.

When you’re putting together a winning team, that honestly doesn’t matter. When you have a player who takes a ton of walks, who doesn’t put the ball in play at an above average rate, and is a certain type of hitter, he’s not going to drive in a lot of runs. Runs scored, you couldn’t be more wrong. If you look at a rate basis, J.D. scores a ton of runs.

And the reason he scores a ton of runs is because he does the single most important thing you can do in baseball as an offensive player. And that’s NOT MAKE OUTS … Look at his runs scored on a rate basis with the Red Sox or throughout his career. It’s outstanding.

You guys can talk about RBIs if you want … we ignore them in the front office … and I think we’ve built some pretty good offensive clubs.

So you see what baseball started to figure out was it wasn’t just about statistics. It was about the right statistics. It was about measuring run scoring and run prevention. Sure RBIs is an okay statistic, but there are better statistics to measure the ability of a ballplayer.

What does this have to do with education?

Right now it seems like all every teacher, parent, administrator, uncle, grandma, pastor, politician and journalist care about is educational statistics. How much have are students reading and math scores improved? Are we competing globally? Are our teacher’s improving our kids class scores?

Sure answering these questions is a good thing, but it feels like we are just throwing numbers all over the place. Statistics that don’t measure the right results. RBIs and Wins.

The million dollar question however is what are the right statistics?

Here’s the thing though – It took a long time for baseball to get it right. Bill James, who is widely considered the father of using the right statistics, started publishing his annual Baseball Abstracts in 1977. For 20 years, Bill James was shouting from the roof tops the fallacies of current baseball statistics. Some teams started listening, but many baseball folks are still trying to get it right.

What does that mean for education?

It’s going to take time. There is a lot of information out there and a lot of statistics. It’s nearly impossible for one person to wade through the sea of data and reveal some universal truths about learning.

However, if we keep asking the right questions and keep questioning the norm we’ll find something that will work. One thing to keep in mind, however, is not to jump to conclusions. If some one claims that student tests scores are low because the teachers are poor, he is probably wrong. If someone claims teacher performance has no impact on student performance he is probably wrong too.

I’m excited there is a lot of interest in education right now and hopefully the increased press will bring about innovation in the field.

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  • One fallacy of current educational statistics is the overemphasis on quantitative data. A lot of schools collect surveys, but don’t do anything with the information, opting to rely heavily on easier-to-analyze test scores, etc.

    Figuring out a method of effectively analyzing qualitative data will be a big step forward.

    (It wouldn’t hurt to add some qualitative data to baseball stats either – maybe this is part of the “X” factor).

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