Moneyball lessons for education (Part 2)

An earlier post explored how the Oakland A’s baseball team, and their general manager Billy Beane, have been using advanced statistics – and now big data – to better understand players’ performance. A key quote from Beane’s recent Wall Street Journal article highlights two issues that are related to education, assessment, and evaluation:

"Having advanced performance data at even the most junior levels will make it less likely that players get filtered out based on 60-yard-dash times or radar-gun readings, and more likely that they advance on the merits of practiced skills. The ability to "paint the corners" of the strike zone, to swing only at pitches within that zone, and to manage the subtle footwork required of a difficult fielding play is accessible to any player willing to commit to the "10,000 Hour Rule" (the average amount of practice Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers," says is needed to excel in selected fields). A whole new class of players whose skill sets previously were not fully appreciated will be able to reach the highest levels thanks to a more nuanced understanding of their abilities."

The concept of evaluating players based on constant review of game performance, instead of one-time measures such as 60-yard dash times, is especially applicable to education in the digital learning era. Although students learn throughout the school year, for school accountability purposes most students are tested once a year (or less) in just a few subject areas. More frequent assessments are used to evaluate students’ grades and advancement, but the number is still small relative to what is possible, or more importantly, relative to what is potentially helpful for student learning. These coarse student assessments based on a few items are similar to evaluations of players with radar gun readings and 60-yard dashes rather than on finer abilities that are reviewed more regularly. As learning moves online, an ever-increasing amount of students’ work can be easily tracked and assessed, constantly and in real time. If a teacher and school can “watch” how well a student is answering 1,000 math problems throughout the entire school year, the need to administer a 20-question test every so often is greatly diminished—and perhaps the test is not necessary at all.

Some of the pushback against the use of data seems to be based on the important view held by parents and teachers that students are not numbers, and that they should not be taught based on ideas or recommendations formed from data gleaned from large numbers of students. The term “big data” suggests that each student is just one among many, and that students are not being taught based on their individual characteristics. It’s not uncommon in the stories about the use of data in education to hear a teacher or parent say “students aren’t just a set of numbers.”

But the use of data, when done well, is not at all about reducing students to numbers. Personalized assessment and feedback allow unique elements of each student to show through, helping them to avoid getting lost in the crowd. Beane notes how better information helps the A’s find players whose skills are more subtle than throwing a baseball 100 miles per hour. They can find the players whose “skill sets previously were not fully appreciated,” like pitchers who have impeccable control, or players who run the bases better than others.

In education, better, more personalized information allows teachers to identify students whose talents may not be “fully appreciated” by state assessments, and perhaps help those students to achieve the levels of literacy and numeracy necessary to allow their other talents to flourish. Data can also allow schools to challenge the students who are excelling with advanced courses, deeper learning, and real-world connections, to ensure that those students don’t become bored. More information doesn’t turn students into a cog in the machine, but instead allows each student to excel in his or her own way.

Another concern about big data in education is centered on critical thinking skills. This topic will be explored in our next post.