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When Baseball and Education Meet: Moneyball, the UFT and a Missed Opportunity

is poor research the UFT's national pastime?

“… mighty Casey has struck out.”

Indeed, Ernest Lawrence Thayer. Little did you know in 1888 how well that closing line of “Casey at the Bat” would fit the recent debate involving Billy Beane’s Moneyball philosophy and how we might best evaluate our teaching corps.

I like baseball a lot. I’ve followed the game – and especially its stats – for as long as I can remember, and growing up in Cooperstown didn’t make that very difficult. For those of you who consider that too anecdotal, I studied baseball history with a pretty sharp scholar for a semester and, some 5 or so years ago, submitted a proposal to the Tufts Experimental College to teach a class on baseball history [proposal denied].

I also like education a lot.

Kevin Carey’s [The Quick and the Ed, Education Sector] recent piece about using “value-added” methodologies to evaluate teachers ["Value-Added Comes of Age"] raises interesting points about how we might assess our educators. The shorter, quicker version appeared in the New York Daily News, in which Carey says:

“In the late 1990s, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane revolutionized professional baseball by ignoring what his players looked like and focusing, objectively, on how they performed. Now New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is trying to do the same thing for public education – if the teachers union doesn’t stop him first.

… And so, Klein plans to start using something called “value-added” data to figure out differences among teachers. The data compare annual test score gains in a teacher’s classroom to statistically predicted gains, given students’ backgrounds, previous academic history and a range of other factors.

At first, school officials are going to measure the performance of some 2,500 teachers – a small fraction of the 80,000-plus in the system. There are no plans to attach huge rewards or penalties to the results, at least not yet.”

Then, as Drew Curtis of fark.com would say, hilarity ensued:

“Unfortunately, when the initiative was reported last month, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten rejected the notion outright, saying, “Any real educator can know within five minutes of walking into a classroom if a teacher is effective.”"

She might be right. I’d claim with certainty that I could walk into a room and know whether a speaker is shilling for a shameless partisan willfully blind to accountability measures and, like Weingarten’s teacher-judger, do it mostly on gut feeling. I’d probably be right, too.

But I’d rather focus on Leo Casey’s response on Edwize, the UFT’s official blog. In “BillyBall Strikes Out as Educational Model,” Casey says:

“It now appears that “Billyball,” as its advocates called Beane’s statistical approach, doesn’t have quite the track record of success Carey reported. The most famous account of Beane’s method was Michael Lewis 2004 book Moneyball, which looked closely at Beane’s 2002 draft picks, since the Athletics had accumulated an unusually large number of such picks that season. As New York Times sports columnist Murray Chass recently recounted, the Beane’s 2002 choices chronicled in the Lewis book have proven less than felicitous. Statastically speaking, the other teams which picked based on scouting reports did better than the Athletics.

You can count us among the skeptics that evaluating teachers is a process akin to judging baseball talent. But it is interesting to know that the baseball model being proffered as a basis for judging teaching performance was not even successful on its own terms.”

You’re a skeptic because you want to be, Mr. Casey, and because “value-added” metrics might not serve the interests of the UFT – nothing more, nothing less.

To analyze Edwize’s witless reaction means that we have to look at three things: briefly, what Moneyball is all about, Murray Chass and his article, and how Edwize used the two.

For the Moneyball summary, I’ll defer to a friend of mine who works for an organization in Major League Baseball. He wrote to me:

“The UFT Blog has added itself to the roll of blogs misinterpreting and misrepresenting the meaning of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball …

… The philosophy espoused in Moneyball was not the use of statistics to analyze baseball that is so often stated. That has been known since Henry Chadwick [baseball writer and statistician, 1824 - 1908].

Moneyball was about the identification and exploitation of undervalued commodities. This is not applying statistics to baseball, it is applying business acumen to baseball, and understanding players as commodities. Billy Beane himself would definitely tell you that baseball players are more than commodities, that it’s important to understand their makeup and mien. But the point of Moneyball was that it was time to move further toward the analytical commodity side of the spectrum and away from the personal interpretation of scouts.”

After citing Terman and Binet as two fine examples of introducing new, effective metrics to improve our understanding of education, he concludes:

“Is identifying undervalued commodities, the true point of Moneyball, applicable to recruiting quality educators? Perhaps. And applying it to the educators themselves? If the observers of that community and the educators feel they are not doing so well enough with the current metrics (GPA, coursework, quality of institution, administrator evaluation), then perhaps new metrics and methods are warranted.”

Well put – it’s a worthwhile discussion that we all should have. Unfortunately, Casey is dutifully toeing the Wein-line. He isn’t interested.

And why should he take Carey’s ideas seriously? After all, New York Times national baseball writer Murray Chass declared Tuesday that Beane’s Moneyball philosophy was a flop. Chass took a look at the 2002 draft class – a small sample size in a business that has incredibly large fluctuation in outcomes – and ruled that the A’s had failed. You can read the article and judge for yourself, but there are several problems with Chass’ analysis:

  • Very small sample size;
  • Uses only the simplistic metric of Major League outcomes/statistics. Teams draft for their entire organizations – even non-MLBers can be successful draft picks;
  • Fails to take into account anything monetary/economic or other resource efficiencies; etc.

Chass basically looks at the draft class, concludes that the A’s should’ve drafted Prince Fielder and declares that the organization’s scouting system failed. Draw your own conclusions about its validity.

That’s fine, because Murray Chass is a traditionalist to a fault and I’m used to him being obnoxiously wrong about some things. He’s grating and charming at the same time and sportswriting would be less interesting without him. Every sector needs a crotchety, stubborn, pigheaded SOB here and there, and Chass is one of baseball’s.

What isn’t fine is Edwize’s over-eager jump to the conclusion that Carey is wrong because Murray Chass’s painfully-inadequate piece contradicted him. A newsflash for Leo Casey: if you’re going to criticize the effectiveness of Moneyball, Murray Chass isn’t the guy you want to cite. Looking to Chass for an honest, informed, unbiased analysis of Moneyball is on par with asking Ahmadinejad to give a fair and balanced opinion on Israel.

But don’t take it from me, take it from Murray Chass.

Consider sections from this Feb. 27, 2007 piece in which he talks about the stats/metrics Moneyballers use. [VORP is "Value Over Replacement Player," a metric that expresses a player's contributions relative to a fictitious "replacement player" with average defensive statistics and below-average hitting; equivalent measures for pitchers] :

“I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.

To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.

Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.”

Edwize, take note – you’re depending on the analysis of a man who:

  • Is open and honest about how valueless he considers any of these metrics to be;
  • As recently as a year ago, admitted explicitly that he hated the metric;
  • In the next sentence he admitted that he didn’t know what the letters even stood for and, in the same sentence, admitted that he didn’t care to find out;
  • Asked like-minded friends to validate his willful ignorance;
  • Finds out what the words mean without having any idea what the measure is;
  • Admits that, at the end of it all, he still has no clue what VORP is about. But he hates it.

Good, trustworthy source, Leo. Very UFT of you.

Casey and the UFT should be ashamed of themselves for playing politics instead of taking an honest look at a potentially valuable set of metrics. They think it’s absurd. They don’t ask what it means. They don’t know. And, as a result, kids suffer so the UFT can take a cheap shot. Absolutely shameful.

Chass ended that 2007 piece with this line:

“People play baseball. Numbers don’t.”

He’s right. Numbers don’t play the game – just like the proposed numbers that will help evaluate New York City’s teachers don’t teach Regents English. Instead, these numbers reflect performance so we can assess that performance in a meaningful way. Declaring or pretending that they’re anything else is engaging in disingenuous propaganda that results in a missed opportunity to make our schools better.

Mudville’s hero fell in 1888. 120 years later, UFT’s slugger stepped to the plate.

Same result.

ADDITIONAL READING:

7 Responses to “When Baseball and Education Meet: Moneyball, the UFT and a Missed Opportunity”

  1. Colin says:

    Cool post.

    Maybe I need to reread Moneyball, because I forget whether the As had high picks in the 2002 draft and traded down. Because as I’m reading this, Casey has misinterpreted Chass’s article. Casey writes:

    “This is true statistically, as Chass shows, but the difference becomes even more dramatic when one looks at a number of the picks Beane and A’s passed over who went on to become more successful major leaguers than their picks — including one, Scott Kazmir, that the Mets later gave up in their worst trade of recent years. [Sorry, that’s the inner Mets fan speaking.] Others such as Prince Fielder, B. J. Upton, Cole Hamels and Jeff Francoeur, will be recognized by avid baseball fans as superior to the A’s picks.”

    The thing is, the As first pick was the 16th. BJ went 2nd, Prince 7th, and Kazmir 15th. Then the As selected Swisher. Hamels then went 17th and Francoeur 23rd, before the As next pick (where they grabbed a solid arm in Blanton). This all took me 30 seconds of research, by the way.

    So in reality, they only passed on Fracoeur and Hamels, both good players for sure.

    But here’s the thing: which member of the 2002 draft class has outperformed Swisher? The guy is a stud. There’s a couple of close calls. Some might prefer Francoeur due to his fielding, others might opt for Swisher’s superior bat. Fielder might be on his way, but he’s only played 2 full seasons, which is part of the reason the As avoid HS kids. They spend more time in the minors and they don’t get as much value out of their cheap initial contract.

    I mean really, when it’s all added up, Swisher is at the very least a top 4 guy out of that draft class, and they nabbed him at the 16th spot. If Casey’s remarks are true, then “avid baseball” fans should pay more attention.

  2. Colin says:

    not to mention his method is nothing more than an appeal to authority (and as you pointed out, a poor one), one of the most common fallacies. That’s not very promising if you’re in the Casey camp.

  3. Colin,

    A commenter on the Edwize site echoed your words re: the real details of the 2002 draft:

    http://edwize.org/billy-ball-strikes-out-as-educational-model

  4. Kevin,

    I’m just stunned at the lack of basic research that’s gone on here – from Casey to Klonsky. As Colin pointed out, one can avoid these gaffes with Google and 30 seconds. Then again, it’s standard fare in this business.

  5. Allison says:

    For me,the most interesting part of Moneyball from an educational perspective is not the Moneyball aspect per se, but something else: the difference between teams historically caring about and relying on COACHING and teams giving up on coaching and now looking for valuable yet undervalued commodities.

    Billy Beane himself had all the talent to be one of baseball’s truly greats, and yet, somehow, somewhere, couldn’t pull it together. That experience didn’t lead him to think “gee, I needed better coaching, better mentorship, or someone, anyone to help me figure out how to pull it together. If I give that to my players, I’ll turn a dozen almost-rans into the best team in the league.” It led him to say “I was a failure as a player, and I’m not going to waste time on failures. They are expected to pull it together on their own, and we’re not coddling them.” So he found valuable yet undervalued commodities and expected them still to without coaching or mentorship, live up to his demands of what MLB meant. At no time did he take interesting undervalued commodities that were on the edge of value because of their need for coaching and turn them into greatness.

    Thinking about that issue, the lack of coaching, the most obvious problem with Moneyball as an educational model is that schools would APPLY IT TO THEIR STUDENTS, not to the teachers. They’ve basically already said “we don’t teach; those who succeed we take credit for, those who don’t we label learning disabled.” They have basically decided not to invest in anything. Just give them the chance to use assessments to find the undervalued commodity, and they’ll exploit that, but will they bother teaching those who aren’t yet showing themselves to be valuable yet undervalued?

  6. Leon says:

    Allison,
    I’m not sure I recall Moneyball having a theme of not coaching players. I think the point was more that he allowed time and college experience to weed out those that were higher risk, may have appeared to have the tools to succeed, but ended up dropping off or suffering a debilitating injury during the ages 18-21.
    To give you an academic example, what Beane did was like acting as a college admissions officer. Instead of signing 8th graders to his college based on their standardized test scores at that time, he allowed them to develop a high school record before signing them. Maybe he missed out on some prospects that the other colleges had locked up in 8th grade, but he didn’t run the risk of signing anyone that looked good in 8th grade, but couldn’t translate that success to high school.

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  1. The Habitual Race-Baiting Dishonesty of the UFT's Leo Casey - [...] there was Leo’s “Moneyball/Billyball” debacle in which the not-so-mighty Casey predictably struck out… and proceeded to defend his swings ...

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