25 Feb How Modern Baseball Could Hold The Key To Better Outcomes For Schools

Does the current state of education research have the potential to make real contributions to the art of teaching? We believe so, and it all starts with America’s pastime, baseball…

“Moneyball,” or the use of statistics to illuminate hidden aspects of a player’s ability to contribute to a team’s overall success, was first put into practice in the late 1990’s by Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane. Beane and his crew of stat geeks abandoned more subjective assessments of players (“He’s got broad shoulders, he’ll be a great hitter!”) and replaced these with judgments about a player’s worth based around more objective statistics like what percentage of the time he got on base.

Payoff for moneyball was huge.  Beane’s team won more games between the years 2000 and 2004 than the New York Yankees while spending 300 million dollars less. This included winning 20 games in a row:


Now all teams play some version of “moneyball.”

Could this same statistics-based approach be brought to education? Many companies and legislators are certainly trying, but many others would argue that what goes on in classrooms is much complicated than what happens on a baseball diamond.

Determining or evaluating a student’s intellectual growth or character development is far more difficult than computing on base percentage or “strikeout to walk ratio.”

Besides, haven’t an army of educational researchers been trying to apply the scientific method to the study of teaching for the last century or so? What’s really changed?

For a complete answer to that question a short history lesson is in order.  We’ll need to focus on the life of L.J. Cronbach, perhaps the most brilliant mind ever to focus on the science of education.

 image002In 1957, Cronbach, already a prominent professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, gave an influential speech to the American Psychological Association (APA) in which he advocated for a new approach to educational research that went by the name of “Aptitude by Treatment interactions,” or ATI.

In brief, ATI is a research method designed to determine which teaching methods, or “treatments,” are best suited to students with different aptitudes, such as learning style or IQ.  Rather than trying to find one instructional technique that was superior to all others, ATI research looked for interactions and correlations such as see here in this graph.

style-by-treatment-interactionThe future looked bright to Cronbach in 1957.

But fast forward 18 years. Cronbach has spent the bulk of his professional life studying ATI. He is receiving a lifetime achievement award and once again is asked to give the keynote address at the APA’s National Convention.

Now sadder, but wiser, Cronbach states:

“The line of investigation I advocated for in 1957 no longer seems sufficient. Human behavior is too complex.”

Cronbach also lamented that the interactions that he studied were rarely simple, that there were multiple facets to both aptitudes and treatments. In fact, he characterized human behavior as a “hall of mirrors that extends to infinity.”

So where does this leave us? Is it even possible to do research that will help us design programs to increase academic achievement or improve moral character?

Cronbach does leave us with at least one solution, and that is his opinion that research should be done locally. Do it in a single school rather than trying to generalize findings from a large study to schools all over the United States.

But what about the “hall of mirrors?” Well, moneyball actually may supply the solution to that second problem.

Back in Cronbach’s day, he lamented that the amount of data that it would take to supply context for him was prohibitive, but today we have new data capture techniques that will allow us to capture this contextual information, such as the experience sampling we do with schools using iNOTED.

And if we do this research in individual schools, and provide reports to these schools on just their students, we hope we will be able to collect enough context to fulfill the promise that Cronbach made to us back in 1957, that there was a brighter future ahead.

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