As intrepid Deputy Director Sanford Johnson can attest, my knowledge of the sports world is not the best. In fact, the only reason my basketball references don’t feature the stars of SpaceJam is because of Sanford and his prolific use of sports analogies. Suffice it to say that when my husband told me that he wanted to see Moneyball last spring, I acceded with a little less than good grace.

Strangely enough, I liked Moneyball more than my husband. I liked it so much, in fact, that I got on Amazon and ordered the very well-written and even more compelling book by Michael Lewis the very next day. Why? Because I saw the movie as one large allegory about public education.

Moneyball follows the remarkable 2002 season of the Oakland A’s and their General Manager, Billy Beane. After a winning 2001 season, Beane realized he was in trouble: his team couldn’t afford to pay the salaries of star players and if they were lucky enough to make good bets on rookies (a crap shoot), they lost them as soon as the rest of Major League Baseball saw they were going to be stars, as happened after the 2001 season. You see, conventional wisdom in baseball was that star players won games, and you couldn’t get established star players without lots of money. Billy Beane didn’t have lots of money. He ran the third-poorest team in baseball, and the owner of the A’s wasn’t interested in doing much about that. How could he possibly be successful without more money?

Sound familiar?

Enter sabermetrician (baseball statistics aficionado) Paul de Podesta, or Peter Brand in the film, who gave Beane a new way of recruiting baseball players: data. Basically, the team used data to get a lot better at picking rookies and then they also identified established players who had valuable skills to offer a team but were undervalued by the Major Leagues (because they were seen as too old, for example). They called this process Moneyball, and it was so successful other teams began to copy the method after 2002.

Despite the early success of Moneyball, the professional establishment of Major League Baseball maligned it so much that Billy Beane was getting hit from every angle. Data, they said, takes the magic out of baseball. Data can’t possibly be as good as the “professional judgments” of the baseball establishment, even when those judgments are fraught with personal prejudices and based on criteria unrelated to the winning of baseball games. Data opens the door to amateur riffraff who haven’t earned their baseball creds. Even today, some of the baseball establishment still resists Moneyball and its lessons.

Again, sound familiar?

Whereas Beane and his staff had to figure out how to field the very best team with very limited resources (relatively speaking for baseball), the question for education is, “How do we use data to get better results on a limited budget?” I call this idea Education Moneyball and have been evangelizing it to anyone who will listen since the spring.

Every now and then the universe aligns nicely with a message that I hope people will hear. At the end of October, I gave a presentation in Biloxi about Education Moneyball to a room full of Mississippi school district officials. Then, just this week, the internet has been abuzz with reports about the vindication of data guru Nate Silver’s predictions of the election on Tuesday. It is no coincidence that Mr. Silver came from the world of baseball, where he was using statistics like the guys featured in Moneyball. Kris Amundson of Education Sector published a good piece Thursday on the Quick and the Ed (Does Education Need Nate Silver?) about the data revolution finally trumping the “gut feelings” of the political world, much like it did in baseball, and the need for education to catch-up.

The good news is that there are several smart people in education today who are not only calling for better use of data in education but are actually proposing workable Education Moneyball ideas for school districts to implement. Here are my top three Education Moneyball ideas, in no particular order, that have me excited recently:

1. Increasing Attendance to Increase Achievement–This summer the Everyone Graduates Center published a report (The Importance of Being in School) on the chronic absenteeism problem in America’s schools and how it depresses achievement and leads to dropouts. The authors define chronic absenteeism as missing 10% or more of the school year, or at least 18 days a year in states requiring 180 days. The report uncovers a data problem that is very similar to one of the problem’s facing baseball as described in Moneyball: it’s not that people are not collecting data and statistics and using it to make decisions; it’s that people sometimes use the wrong data to make decisions. In the report, the authors take a new look at a data set that is probably as old as public schools in America–attendance. Today’s schools, rich or poor, large or small, all track attendance and then calculate a number known as average daily attendance (ADA), or the average number of kids in school a day.  In many states, including Mississippi, this number serves as the basis for the amount of state funding school districts receive annually. Schools have also been instructed to meet a 95% ADA as part of our federal accountability system. The problem, as the authors of  The Importance of Being in School point out, is not that ADA is a bad thing; it’s that even ADA’s above 90% can mask a huge chronic absenteeism problem–as many as 40% of students missing 10% or more days.

How is this possible? After all, isn’t anything above 90% pretty darn good? As it turns out, no. The authors explain, “A school can have average daily attendance of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent, because on different days, different students make up that 90 percent.” (I believe statisticians call this a Simpson’s Paradox.) The authors go on to show is that there are magic numbers in ADA; they’re just not where you might think. Schools with an ADA of over 97% are very unlikely to have a chronic absenteeism problem. Schools between 93-97% may have a chronic absenteeism problem, and schools with an ADA of less than 93% almost definitely have a chronic absentism problem. The report also uncovers some interesting facts about where this problem is located and which students are most likely to be chronically absent.

Why does chronic absenteeism matter? Let’s start with the obvious: when kids miss school, they don’t learn. When kids miss a lot of school–10% or more of the school year–it has a dramatic impact on their achievement and is strong predictor of whether they will dropout later in high school. There’s also the mercenary reason that schools need ADA to get dollars. Tracking chronic absenteeism as distinct from ADA is literally worth it.

The Everyone Graduates Center report is full of interesting information as well as brief profiles of a few model states and programs that are trying to use this information to get kids back in school. Though schools have limited resources, it seems like a no-brainer to ask attendance personnel to focus on identifying chronically absent kids and returning them to school.

2. Education Resource Strategies’ School Budget Hold’em–I have a lot of respect for ERS and their leader Karen Hawley Miles. All of their work is pretty excellent, but their School Budget Hold’em online game is especially mind-blowing. ERS has been making the case for years that school revenues are falling over the long-term while the costs of education, as now conceived, are only expected to increase. These circumstances require schools to think much differently about how they spend their dollars in order to get more out of each line-item. Their School Budget Hold’em, literally an online card game using numbers from a mid-sized district they work with, helps people think differently about the investments and cuts that they are making to a budget when faced with contradictory wants from the public (cut 5% while paying teachers more, for example). The game requires players to weigh options in relation to each other (rather than in the isolation we usually talk about budget items) as well as in relation to the impact of each choice on student outcomes. Play with your colleagues and you’ll soon find yourself re-evaluating what you think are the best moves for your local district.

A similar resource on this topic is the book Stretching the School Dollar by Rick Hess and Eric Osberg. The book, however, is more of a look at cost-saving ideas than the process of making budget trade-offs in order to realize program goals like Hold’em. Another real strength of School Budget Hold’em is that it turns the process of budgetary decisions into a game that sparks conversation among people as a matter of course.

3. Public Impact’s Opportunity CulturePublic Impact is really thinking out of the box, the classroom box, that is. Essentially, Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture is a variety of models to re-design schools with the goal of providing an excellent teacher for every child using existing staff. Public Impact correctly points out that even with recruiting and retaining more good teachers and removing bad teachers, we still won’t be able to reach every child in the foreseeable future with an excellent teacher under our existing classroom models. The Opportunity Culture work proposes 20 models of school re-designs based around four principles to extend the reach of excellent teachers already in the building. By restructuring classrooms, schools can get more impact out of money they are already spending and perhaps even pay great teachers more! Of the three ideas presented here, this one is probably the boldest but in the long-term may have the most benefit.

I hope this post gets you thinking. Let us hear your Education Moneyball ideas in the comments!

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