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Modern Parenthood

Education and baseball: Performance stats good to know, not whole picture

With the proliferation of statewide standardized testing, take it from a principal: Statistics can play a role in education like they do in baseball. But like baseball, there needs to be room to account for the grit, the heart, and the unpredictable surges of students. 

By Guest Blogger / April 19, 2013

A preschooler at Todd Nelson's school suited up in full catcher's gear as he was of fielding balls during an afternoon game at the school, September 2012.

Todd Nelson

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Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley outside Philadelphia. He has been a Monitor contributor of Home Forum essays, poems, Op-Ed commentaries and feature articles since 1989. He writes a monthly column for Teachers.net. He and his wife, Lesley, have three adult children.

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This may sound like a baseball story, but it’s really about standards-based education — like all those checklists and Adequate Yearly Progress and state testing results your child’s school is sending home this year. It being baseball season, I have an analogy for you.

School should be more like baseball — and it will be. As I observed during my former public school administrative life, which included working on standards-based instruction and progress reports, it occurred to me that baseball is a pretty concise analogy for the way many schools are learning to talk about student achievement.

There are baseball games when even the best hitters and fielders in the major leagues do not meet the standards for “Acceptable Yearly Progress”— and yet they win the game. In fact, a championship batter can “not meet the standards” two out of three at-bats, and then hit a walk-off grand-slam to clinch a game or playoff series and be considered a hero. There is no such thing as “partially meets,” “meets,” or “exceeds” the standards for a home run. It’s either in or out of the ballpark. It doesn’t follow mode or mean! Such a grand slam performance wins accolades on the sports pages and ecstatic sound bites by the color commentators, to say nothing of multi-year gazillion dollar salaries!

Like any good metaphor, it helps me cut through a lot of the mystifying jargon by describing one thing in terms of another. Standards-based learning and reporting actually has a lot in common with the way statistics and lore are recorded in baseball, a balance between the data that tracks individual performance over time, the highlights of particular games and seasons, and allowance for the ecstatic moments and unpredictable breakthroughs that statistics belie. Some statistics can be parsed and examined; some can’t until they are aggregated in a grade — like winning a game, or a pennant, or series, or a hall of fame career. But we can use our stats to be students of the game, and, most importantly, our game. We just need an agreed-upon language to talk about what’s happening on the field: RBIs, hits, home runs, errors, stolen bases, ERAs, etc. There’s a lot to keep your eye on, besides that fly ball getting lost in the sun.

If you think about it, baseball and school share the same interplay of individual and team achievement. Students all play field positions and take their ups at the plate — working on multiple skills that will contribute to solo stats and, maybe, induction into the School Hall of Fame at some point in their careers. But they are also contributing to the achievement of the team. Sure, we all want to break various solo season records. But more than anything, we want to win the pennant race. The thing about school is, we are each playing in a different, exclusive race — a league of our own. We each must play our own game; our own position. We use our stats to determine how it’s going, relative to our own past performance, and to set goals for the next game.

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