Policymakers Dig the Long Ball

Opening Day!

On Opening Day 2021, I attempted to embody the spirit, if not the skill, of A. Bartlett Giamatti and engage in the real pastime of the true baseball fan, to wax poetic about baseball as the perfect metaphor for life. In that post, I recounted the central position that baseball, in all of its varied forms, has occupied throughout my life.

This year, it would be more appropriate to say that I have decided to wax polemic about baseball as a metaphor for life.

Specifically, I refer to that portion of our professional life that pertains to PK-12 education; and even more precisely, to the modern national pastime within PK-12 education which we refer to as Education Reform.

The similarities between the baseball season and school year are obvious. The 180-day school year, with classes Monday through Friday, stretches across ten months. The 162-game baseball season, with games every day except the occasional Monday and Thursday, unfolds across six months.

The two complement each other as well, with baseball beginning just as the school year starts to wind down, and the school year resuming as the baseball season enters its final month.

We understand that each school year, like each baseball season, is a marathon not a sprint (a sports metaphor within a sports metaphor).  We know that there will be ups and downs, good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks. On the diamond, there will be winning streaks and losing streaks. In the classroom, the road from September to June can play out like a game of Chutes and Ladders.

We don’t infer too much from one good start, a weekend series in which our center fielder goes 10-12 (or 0-12 for that matter), one less than stellar book report, or an unexpected outcome (in either direction) on an interim assessment.

We are confident that when all is said and done, students and teams will have sorted themselves out correctly.

Expanding the Metaphor

Making our way from the beginning of pre-Kindergarten to high school graduation is a series of school-year marathons run consecutively, with a brief period of rest, and ideally minimal summer learning loss, in between.

I picture a series of 14 somewhat overlapping marathon courses stacked on top of each other from PK to 12 to form a perverse vertical scale of achievement and knowledge. Admittedly, it is a mental image that more rapidly evokes thoughts of Rube Goldberg than Hank Greenberg (an arcane baseball reference).

However monstrous that mental image may be, what if we think of accountability in terms of the entire PK-12 system rather than each of the individual grade levels it comprises. Less obvious may be the metaphor in which we regard baseball and a single baseball season as a metaphor for the entire PK-12 experience.

Hope Springs Eternal

On each Opening Day, we will ourselves to believe that our team has a real, if not an equal, chance of lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season. It’s part of being a fan. And we do likewise for each and every student on each First Day of School.

But we know that it is not true. We know on Opening Day that some teams are likely to have losing seasons. We know on the first day of school that some students and some schools have little chance of achieving proficiency based on grade-level standards or attaining the other things we hold dear within the coming school year. And we know the consequences that brings.

We know that the distance between successful and unsuccessful baseball teams increases as we move from Opening Day to Memorial Day to the Fourth of July, and finally to Labor Day. Similarly, and inexorably, the distance separating students and schools grows as they move from Pre-K to third grade to sixth grade to ninth grade.

And we know that Education Reform is a slog – a wonderfully onomatopoeic word. True Education Reform requires difficult choices, tireless effort, and hard work over an extended period of time.

Wait ‘til Next Year!

If we know all of that, I have to question why we continue, time and time again, to create policies and implement assessment and accountability systems that treat Education Reform as the equivalent of baseball’s Home Run Derby.

It may be a sense of urgency that leads policymakers to adopt baseball’s battle cry, Wait ‘til Next Year!, as the mantra for Education Reform.  (Note that for true baseball fans, Wait ‘til Next Year! is, in fact, a battle cry and not a lament. We know that the outcome will be different next year.)

However, I believe that the more likely answer is that Policymakers Dig the Long Ball.

Consider the Home Run Derby as the model for current School Accountability Systems.

It has and is spectacle.

It has majestic home runs. It has continuous action that can easily be broken down into short clips. It has immediate gratification. It is self-contained. It has tightly controlled conditions with a clearly defined beginning and end; and when it is finished, we can move on to something else.

The appeal is obvious to policymakers who are short on time (“Don’t give them more than bullet points.”), have short tenures, and who serve a constituency with short attention spans.

In it for the Long Haul

In reality, of course, even in baseball, the seemingly desirable features of home runs and the Home Run Derby are rife with unintended consequences.

  • An inordinate focus on home runs in the 1990s gave us the steroid era. Recent trends in the game have produced the highest home run totals in history and some of the longest, most boring games with the fewest balls in play.
  • At best, the Home Run Derby and home runs, in general, offer an incomplete picture of the quality of a hitter and of the game. At worst, participation in the artificial Home Run Derby has resulted in injuries and extended slumps as hitters abandon the practices that bring them long-term success in an attempt to attain high test scores — sorry, I mean, hit home runs — in a contrived event.

The Home Run Derby and our current School Accountability Systems are a palliative, a distraction from underlying wicked problems.

But given that Opening Day is a time for hope, optimism, and even blind faith, I will try to end this post on a positive note. What elements of building a successful baseball team can we apply to Education Reform on this Opening Day 2022?

  • Times change
    • You have to know what to hold on to and what you can and should let go.
  • Money Matters, but …
    • Money alone is not sufficient.
  • Metrics Matter, but…
    • They have to be the right metrics. We have to be open to new, advanced metrics, most likely metrics focused on inputs, teaching and learning, improvement, and growth.
  • It’s better to pay for future production than for past performance.
    • That requires evaluation and becoming proficient in predicting future production (see above).
  • Some victories are Pyrrhic.
    • Some innovations, like defensive shifts, might have a short-term positive effect (i.e., they win games), but cause long-term damage to the overall product.
  • You have to have a game plan (some may say a theory of action).
    • And you have to understand how immediate and short-term outcomes (good and bad) fit into that long-range plan.
  • Reversing long-term failure requires systemic change.
    • Rome and the Red Sox weren’t built in a day.
  • You have to build a strong farm system.

I’ll close by going into a little more detail on the idea of building a strong farm system. In education, I see two areas as the education equivalent of “building a strong farm system.”

  1. The first is teacher preparation. If the goal is to produce more high-quality and highly effective teachers, as well as a more diverse pool of teachers, we need to be fully committed to investing and innovating in teacher preparation to improve the pipeline for bringing new teachers and other education professionals into the field.
  2. The second, and more important in my view, is early childhood education. We need to fully invest in early childhood education – for all students, for all types of programs and for all aspects of early childhood education, not simply formal, in-school programs. We can no longer afford (in any sense of the word) to bring children to Opening Day, their first First Day of School, without a real chance of lifting that trophy at the end of the season.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

One thought on “Policymakers Dig the Long Ball

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: