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. 

Todd Nelson
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.

Dear Season Ticket Holders:

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.

To do so we need coaches, managers, umpires, even a commissioner! These wise and experienced people work on the fundamental skills and conditioning during practice, strategize about pitching rotation and batting order, and manage our responses during each “game.” But it’s up to each one of us as students to adapt to the shifting standards and conditions in any given game. We choose our positions and practice in a way that supports our aspiration. This builds our resiliency as individual, and team, players.

The sports writers manage the lore of the season; the statisticians collect the data; the fans show up to root, root, root for the home team. When the progress and scouting reports come out at the all-star break or end of the season, we learn something about how well we’ve pitched in clutch situations, or how consistent we bat against left-handed or knuckleball pitchers. We collect formative evidence of our abilities that we can use from game to game in honing our performance. But our final grade, our summative performance, the one our fans cherish and which is the true measure of our school-of-baseball abilities, may be that walk-off homer…or, alas, the rare Bill Buckner moment. (Yup, I’m a Red Sox fan.)

Thankfully, school, like baseball, glides along as much on lore as cold, hard statistics. That’s where the heart is. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” as Yogi Bera would say … or “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” And no matter how dismal a season or term may feel, there’s always next year. The fans (parents) are loyal. The umps and coaches (teachers) are fair and knowledgeable. The owners (school board, directors) are supportive and the home field advantage significant to even the smallest of clubs’ prospects.

The key in both games in this analogy is that successful players learn about themselves from their statistics, and contribute to their team with their performance. Little by little, we learn what kind of player we are. We choose a position and work hard at the specialized skills it takes to excel. Every student and player needs to keep their eye on the ball of self-efficacy — not trying to be a better pitcher than this year’s Cy Young winner, necessarily, but being the best pitcher, catcher, or switch hitter they can be. We are trying to find our own position. Some lucky players will go on to careers as managers and coaches.

The league hasn’t established a policy on a few things, like free agency and the designated hitter. We certainly don’t allow spitting or corked bats. Grease balls are obviously forbidden. Steroids? Forget about it! Perhaps the day will come when school progress reports do read like baseball trading cards! I certainly made a lot of progress from my rookie year to my last season with the Cubs. Baseball players might benefit from a page borrowed from our playbook: a section on their cards recording their progress in citizenship. In the meanwhile, we can use the metaphor to imagine the possibilities and translate the jargon.

Now if only there were a neat analogy between school and baseball salaries…. The owners could save a lot of money, or teachers could make some major league bank.

Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Penn.

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