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John Thompson: Baseball Analogies Prone to Errors

Guest post by John Thompson.

Chad Alderman's "If the Yankees Used 'First-In, Last-Out'..." is much too typical of the contemporary school "reform" movement. Like so many accountability hawks, Alderman loves to expound on topics that he knows well, but he reveals very little understanding of real life conditions in schools. This sincere advocate for students writes at length about what would happen to the Yankees if they inexplicably adopted the seniority system. He says nothing about schools or his reasons for believing that his baseball analogy is appropriate.

Of course, it would be just as absurd for major league sports to adopt education's work rules as it has been for school system to adopt the practices of hedge funds, as they pretend that data-driven accountability is a valid system for improving students' "outcomes." But, Alderman raises a fair point. What would happen if professional baseball adopted the top down methods of school "reform?"

What would happen if the baseball commissioner tried a baseball version of Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants and decreed that, henceforth, all personnel decisions be driven by a simplistic statistical model. For instance, he might mandate that batting averages, in large part, would have to be the evaluation metric. It would exclude RBIs, defense, pitching, and leadership.

Following school "reformers" and their quick and easy teacher preparation programs, owners would save money by dismantling their farm club system and firing their scouts. As power hitters went extinct, the skills of "advancing the runner" and sacrificing for the team would also be lost. While the exquisite balance of baseball would be squandered, the fielding of nine players who all hit with an average of about .290 or so would be noteworthy in other ways. Without light-hitting pitchers and shortstops, infield play would become a comedy of errors. In the short run, at least, a new breed of fans might buy tickets to glimpse at the resulting spectacle.

But, what would happen if the commissioner mandated that in order to be eligible for revenue sharing teams must fire their manager and cut half their players? Worse, what if he required that a clause must be inserted into players' contracts which allowed them to be restructured by managerial fiat? Borrowing from urban schools, each team could be restructured. On paper, at least, one team would be reorganized as small teams of infielders, outfielders, pitchers, and reserves. The public claim would be that the goal is improving player output, but the real purpose would be creating a fig leaf for firing at will.

After the restructuring, teams would be empowered to void any contracts. A team with too few "Ws" would be expected to trim costs but cutting its high-priced players who had been locked into long-term deals. When a highly-paid star was injured, management would see itself as accountable to the short-term bottom line, and obligated to replace him with a rookie. Letting a concern for the team's chemistry be considered in personnel matters would be seen as unwillingness to do "whatever it takes."

Before long, the unchecked quest for short-term gain, in either baseball or schools, would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. If baseball adopted the school reformers' calculus, there would be two quick and obvious responses. The talent pool would shrink as young athletes started shifting to other sports. In the meantime, Charter League Baseball would emerge. The top players would flee the American and National Leagues for a new system where contracts could be honored and judgments would not be driven solely by data.

Similarly, the short-term push for value-added evaluations is virtually guaranteed to produce an exodus of talent from schools where poverty makes it more difficult to raise test scores. Young teachers, today, might resent seniority, but what happens to them after they have a few years under their belt? Do they really want to start a family and buy a house when their careers can be abruptly halted by the latest "reform" fad? Do professionals really want to commit to a career where they do not dare to speak their minds?

And, that brings us to a more subtle attitude that would be equally destructive. Reformers love to proclaim the few successes that they achieved in increasing student performance, as they ignore their costs. They want a game where their own balls, hits, and runs are counted, but their strikes, outs, and errors are not. And, nowhere is that mindset more obvious than in their disregard for "last-in, first-out." Alderman is not alone in bragging about the savings that could be accrued by laying off veteran teachers with higher salaries. They seem oblivious, however, about the costs of ending, as opposed to mending seniority.
In the first place, seniority and due process are the teachers' First Amendment. Without them, veteran educators would not dare express their professional judgments or protest mandates to commit educational malpractice. Without seniority, who in schools will speak for students who face nonstop test prep and curriculum narrowing?

So, what do you think? What if we stopped viewing schools only through the prism of outsiders' assumptions. Instead of reform by analogy, what if we looked at schools as they really are? What if we addressed the facts on the ground and designed educational solutions to address them? What if we rejected decision-making by analogy, looked at the strengths and weaknesses of policies like seniority and developed educational policies to improve schools, as opposed to refashioning them after institutions with which they have nothing in common?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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