Monday, August 10, 2009

The Oakland A's and Public Education


FROM 2007

Two years ago, as part my high school’s school wide summer reading program, I led a group of students through a discussion of Michael Lewis’ remarkable baseball book, Moneyball. Lewis attempts to answer a puzzling question: How was it that the Oakland A’s, with a payroll less than one third the size of the Yankees’ payroll, were able to contend for the pennant every year? The answer, in short, is general manager Billy Beane’s approach to evaluating talent. Rather than adhering to baseball’s dubious wisdom of ages past, Beane listened to a new generation of nerdy analysts who told him to distrust how prospects looked and to pay attention to what they did, and to pay special attention to statistics that translate into wins. Armed with this new knowledge, Beane was able to outsmart his better-heeled rivals and put a contender on the field at bargain rates (the A’s total cost per win in those days was less than $500,000, while the Yankees paid close to $2,000,000 per win).

The Moneyball discussion I led never got out of the batter’s box, unfortunately, particularly when it came to suggesting ways that the book’s lessons might have application in the world beyond baseball. As Lewis said in an interview, "If professional baseball players, whose achievements are endlessly watched, discussed and analyzed by tens of millions of people, can be radically misvalued, who can't be?" I had figured my students’ minds would naturally apply Oakland A’s logic to every sphere of their lives. One of the most common experiences of schooling, I supposed, is taking a test that you know is a poor measure of what you’ve learned. I expected to hear a lot about that, and about inaccurate performance evaluations at work, and about coaches who weren’t as good as everyone said they were, and on and on, but none of that came up.

Moneyball didn’t lead to a paradigm shift for my students, but it did for me. I have not thought about my own work in the same way since reading it. How do we determine what counts as excellence in teaching? I wish I could be evaluated according to the nice things students write about me in my yearbook, but something tells me that isn’t a sound approach. In financial terms, my employer considers my work a little more valuable every year I choose to stick around. And when I earned an additional graduate degree a few years back I got a substantial raise. But I can assure you that my graduate work did not translate into student performance that was worth several thousand more dollars per year to my school system.

The direction we’re moving in, of course, is evaluating teacher performance according to student test scores. Now I’ve never been a knee-jerk opponent of standardized tests. When I’m charged with proctoring them and examine their contents, I rarely see anything that I would not want my own children to know or be able to do at that age. That said, a good standardized test score should be a side effect of a rich education, not the point of the education. Almost anyone who is in a public school classroom today would agree that tests are becoming the point. If our teaching performance were to be evaluated according to our students’ test scores, tests would become the point once and for all.

And yet my inner Billy Beane asks, "OK, its a given that the tests are far from perfect and its a given that you have only limited control over student performance, but aren’t students supposed to learn knowledge and skills in your classroom? Is there a better existing statistic to evaluate your performance by than your students’ test scores?" Not really.

My Beane-ish reflections on teacher performance have been fed by regular visits to Eduwonk.com. I hesitate to call it a favorite website, because it doesn’t cheer me the way a visit to threadless.com does. On the contrary, it always depresses me. It usually makes me feel that I’m about to get steamrolled by a revolution. Eduwonk is a link-heavy blog, and it is the work of Andrew Rotherham, a big wheel in Democratic education policy circles (he worked in the Clinton White House on education initiatives). The content is wide-ranging, but it has a few consistent stances that you might find surprising coming from an education blog on the left side of the political spectrum. Eduwonk believes that No Child Left Behind is, on balance, a positive development in making schools work for everybody. Eduwonk loves Teach for America and other alternative routes into the teaching profession. Eduwonk believes that liberals had better get behind charter schools, not just because charters are a promising answer to the educational needs of a traditional Democratic constituency (the poor), but because failure to support them would mean ceding the field to private school vouchers and result in the evisceration of public education when widespread school choice comes, as it inevitably will. Naturally, the NEA and other hidebound opponents of teacher accountability and bureaucracy-busting reform are anathema at Eduwonk.

Yes, Eduwonk always makes me uneasy, but I suspect that he’s right about most things (especially the need to keep academic success for all front and center) so I keep going back, trying to live by Pearl Cleage’s observation that “discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment.” Eduwonk can be especially unsettling when Rotherham turns over his duties to a guest blogger. The best is probably Michael Goldstein, founder of the highly successful MATCH Charter High School in Boston. He has a take-no-prisoners attitude toward anyone in the education establishment who puts turf or tradition before the academic well-being of urban students. His commentary can be biting, especially toward those who wallow in excuse-making. During his guest-blogger term this summer Goldstein had much to say on the subject of how teachers use their discretionary (non-classroom) time. For me and most teachers, that time is mostly spent grading and planning, with some administrative stuff on the side. Goldstein and the members of his young, smart, go-getter faculty think most of this time is better spent in one-on-one interactions with students and in contact with parents. That is the best way, in their view, to attack what Goldstein calls the big three obstacles to achievement: misbehavior, low skills, and low effort. MATCH has the numbers, in terms of student success on statewide tests, to back up this time-consuming one-on-one practice. The need to grade and plan doesn’t go away, of course, so this means that MATCH teachers commonly work 60 hour weeks.

I corresponded briefly with Goldstein last summer about my belief that this approach doesn’t have widespread application. I quoted him something I had read in a magazine, a line that referenced Jaimie Escalante, the famous Stand and Deliver teacher who taught calculus to inner city Latinos in LA: “Any education reform that requires all teachers to be Jaimie Escalante isn’t really an education reform.” Goldstein conceded that point, but contended that schools need to be restructured to be more accommodating toward those teachers who are willing – in his words – “to pull an Escalante.”

He’s right, of course. If that kind of commitment is what really creates value in terms of student performance (particularly for students who historically underperform), then the people who are willing to give it ought to be accommodated in all sorts of ways, including more money. As a citizen, that is obvious to me.

But as a public school teacher, the prospect of being in competition with such people gives me the willies. I’m about to launch year 18. I think I have learned and improved over time, with many lessons learned the hard way (I am not the teacher my favorite education professor warned us not to be, the teacher who has not had twenty years of experience but one year of experience twenty times). I have increased my ability to do many things that count in the classroom, but I have lost in some other areas, particularly my willingness to devote more than 50 hours a week to my students’ academic success. Most veterans are like that. If we are entering an era where the most valuable asset a teacher has to offer is not experience, but rather a willingness to work killer hours, then teachers will actually become less valuable later in their careers, when their capacity for long hours diminishes. How long before the powers that be get wise, recognize me as the ass-dragging fossil that I am, and cut my salary?

But that is my long-term dread. For now, I have the upcoming school year in my face. We start up again in two weeks. Under the influence of Goldstein, I expect to reorient my use of time some this year – less time working on the bulletin board, more time tutoring kids and talking with their folks. Mostly, for me the struggle this year will be what it has been for a long time: attempting to reconcile accountability and progressivism. Yes, making the 83rd percentile (or whatever) is important, but that isn’t what you remember about school in twenty years. You remember the great paper, the challenging project, the inspiring performance. Too many teachers set up a false choice: we can have standardized test success, or we can have projects, choice and creativity, but we can’t have both. I say we can. I say we must. Satisfying both of these imperatives is a constant challenge to one’s savvy and inventiveness – a little bit like being general manager of the Oakland A’s – but it is the only way to do the job right.

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