Can Education Be ‘Moneyball’-ed?

Data analysis is so trendy these days that Brad Pitt is getting millions of people to sit through a movie about quantitative methodology. Moneyball, based on the 2003 bestseller by Michael Lewis, traces the rise of new methods that the Oakland A’s used to identify undervalued baseball players so the team could win more games with a smaller payroll. A lot of education reformers are calling for a similar approach to evaluate teachers and improve student performance. Given that I’m a longtime reformer and love baseball, you’d think I’d be all over this idea. But there are some significant strikes against a Moneyball approach to education.

Poor data quality. In baseball, you can rely on the accuracy of a statistic such as a batting average or percent of at-bats a player gets on base. In education, we’ve seen an explosion of data and statistics during the past decade — it’s one of the quiet successes of No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, while states are trying to do better, all the data being produced are not yet high-quality. In some states, for instance, standards for accuracy are lax or the data isn’t audited to check for errors. And just 14 states have standards about what a district should do to try to locate or figure out what happened to a departing student, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a national non-profit organization that has led the charge to improve state education data systems.

In addition, too many states have data systems that are inadequate or underutilized. According to the Data Quality Campaign, only 35 states are able to link student data to teacher data — and fewer states actually do this in practice, in no small part because it’s so politically contentious. And a lack of transparency plagues some states, where parents and other stakeholders cannot easily go online and find the data or use it to answer questions or learn about schools. What good is a lot of data if it’s difficult or impossible to use?

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