Over on Twitter, my friend Stephanie Germeraad, who is nearly as passionate about sports as she is about education, suggests education ought to steal a page from baseball when it comes to teacher seniority. Commenting on the decline of legendary closer Trevor Hoffman, she tweets a quote from Alan J. Borsuk: “Schools can learn from baseball. Brewers wouldn’t start Hoffman just because he’s been pitching longer.” The point is that seniority is no guarantee of quality. Fair enough. But here’s a sobering truth: We are far more capable of measuring the effectiveness of relief pitchers like Hoffman than classroom teachers.
If you’re a casual baseball fan, you might know a few ”facts” about the pitchers on your favorite team: their won-loss record, their ERA (the number of “earned runs” allowed per nine innings), or their WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). To an expert, such statistics scratch the surface at best, and may even be irrelevant. Wins are a function of a team’s offense, for example, as much as a pitcher’s effectiveness, while ERA and WHIP are strongly influenced by the defensive ability of the other eight men on the field. An outfielder with greater range for example, will record an out on a ball that a lesser defender lets fall for a hit. Same pitch, same swing, different outcome.
Among baseball geeks, you often hear discussions of fielding independent pitching, or ”FIP,” a measure of the things a pitcher is directly responsible for such a strikeouts, home runs and walks. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well the team played behind him. Data even helps teams decide what kind of pitchers are best suited to their stadiums through analysis of “park effects.” A fly ball pitcher (yes, they keep track of fly balls, line drives and ground balls hit off every pitcher) might prosper in a big stadium like New York’s Citi Field, but allow lots of home runs in a bandbox like Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. A pitcher who “pitches to contact” (i.e., doesn’t strike out a lot of hitters) is fine if your team’s defense is strong. If not, you might spend more to sign pitchers who are strikeout artists. Data even helps spot problems as they occur. Fans of the New York Mets are concerned that all-star pitcher Johan Santana’s fastball is topping out below 90 miles an hour of late, making his changeup, a slow-speed pitch, less likely to fool hitters expecting the fastball.
To a baseball fan statistics are a revelation. The granularity and specificity are illuminating. You can see, if you’re so inclined, a pitcher’s FIP, ERA, strikeouts, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio. The percentage of batted balls that were hit on the ground, in the air, or for line drives can speak volumes about a pitcher’s effectiveness. When a player’s agent goes to negotiate his contract, he can even discuss his “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR), a statistic that measures the total value of a player over a given season compared to an average replacement player.
If these kinds of numbers thrill you, adding depth and nuance to your love of baseball, thank Bill James. It is no overstatement to say that no one has had a greater impact on baseball in the last 25 years than James, who pioneered and named the field of sabermetrics, the use of detailed statistics to analyze baseball team and player performance. James has made a career of demonstrating the factors that lead to teams scoring runs and winning games, and how the efforts of individual players contribute to wins. Some of his insights have been legendary and have overthrown time-honored beliefs about the game–why RBIs matter less than on-base percentage, for example. Or why stolen base attempts tend to hurt a team’s offense. Before Bill James, baseball was all batting averages, bromides and intangibles–a century of baseball men who knew what they knew based on experience, instinct and rudimentary data.
We are in the test scores, bromides and intangibles era of measuring teacher quality. If you’re a prinicipal, wouldn’t you love to know the “school effects” of teacher performance when it came time to make hiring decisions? Would it change your perception of merit pay if there was a classroom equivalent of FIP–the factors directly under a teacher’s control? What if we could compensate teachers based on their replacement value compared to an average first year teacher?
“It’s far more than win/loss/ERA/WHIP” is the clubhouse mantra,” Stephanie tweeted, defending her assertion that education can profit from baseball’s example. ”Difference is, baseball doesn’t say they therefore can’t do it,” she wrote. Not quite right. In baseball there is data–lots of it–to measure effectiveness clearly and fairly. Difference is ”it’s far more than test scores” is not a mantra in ed reform.
Education awaits its Bill James.