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What Would Theo Do?

I'm wondering if Arne Duncan can do for public schools what Theo Epstein has done for the Red Sox -- take a maligned institution and turn it into a perennial winner.
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I'm a lifelong Red Sox fan, so as this year's trading deadline approaches, I'm wondering once again what Theo Epstein, the GM of my beloved Boston Red Sox, will do to improve his team's chances of winning their third championship in six years -- after not winning one for eighty-six.

I'm also a lifelong public education fan, so with the Department of Education's Race to the Top Fund poised to provide billions of dollars in competitive grants, I'm wondering if Arne Duncan can do for public schools what Theo Epstein has done for the Red Sox -- take a maligned institution known more commonly for its failures than its successes, and turn it into a perennial winner.

Duncan should start by asking himself a simple question --What Would Theo Do?

If Theo was in Arne's shoes, I think he'd immediately do three things:

1. Find the right statistics
For generations, baseball fans and managers glamorized three offensive stats -- batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Along the way, everyone also assumed that the best way to improve a team's overall run production was by raising the team's batting average and finding players who hit more home runs.

It makes sense. And yet team batting average actually bears a low correlation to the amount of runs a team is likely to score. Two other statistics, it turns out, are the ones to pay attention to -- on-base and slugging percentage.

Initially, this insight was uncovered by a small number of general managers who, as a result, enjoyed a large competitive advantage. Now, all GM's are clear that the stat that matters most is the one that didn't exist as recently as the 1990s -- OPS, or on-base plus slugging percentage.

If Theo was in Arne's shoes, he'd use the Race to the Top funds to spark a search for the equivalent insight in education. It's clear, for example, that although everyone pays attention to 3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores, there is a low correlation between a spike in those scores and a school's overall ability to prepare kids for success in college, the workplace, and life. We can do better. The statistical revolution helped baseball teams become more effective and efficient; let's use this opportunity to do the same thing in public education.

2. Revamp the scouting department

It wasn't that long ago that Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A's, said baseball scouting was at the same stage of development in the 21st century as professional medicine had been in the 18th. One could say the same thing about our current set of school accountability measures.

The problem in both arenas is that people tend to focus disproportionately on what is easiest to measure. Anyone can capture the speed of a high school pitcher's fastball, for example, yet what matters much more to long-term success in the ability to deceive hitters -- not just throw hard. Just ask Jamie Moyer, still pitching for the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies at 46 years of age, despite rarely topping 75 miles an hour on the radar gun.

What Beane, Epstein and others have learned is that you can't just rely on the most convenient statistical measures if you want to be really effective at evaluating players. Secretary Epstein would therefore start searching for the OPS of school reform. Instead of exclusively using test scores, he'd tinker with a balanced scorecard approach by measuring academic achievement in areas other than math and reading, creating a student aspirations meter, holding states accountable for providing equal opportunities to learn, and investing in programs that could help prepare, place and support highly effective teachers in our neediest public schools. Along the way, we'd uncover a more sophisticated method of understanding how people learn and helping schools understand how to serve all children. Then, we could recalibrate public education's "scouting departments" (e.g., teacher preparation programs, accountability systems, student assessment metrics) to ensure that we know how to find what we're looking for -- in teacher candidates, in school leaders, and in the students themselves.

3. Start with the game, not the numbers
Despite the many recent innovations in player evaluation, teams still make the mistake of falling in love with a prospect's pure numbers and ignoring other factors -- mental makeup, passion for the game, etc. -- that are equally vital to a successful pro career.

As Bill James, a leading statistical guru of baseball - and an advisor to Theo Epstein - has cautioned, "I wonder if we haven't become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them." As James explains, "I do not start with the numbers any more than a mechanic starts with a monkey wrench. I start with the game, with the things that I see there and the things that people say there."

Paul DePodesta, the statistically minded GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers, says something similar:

"It's looking at process rather than outcomes. Too many people make decisions based on outcomes rather than process. But it's not always what happened that matters. It's how our guy approached the situation that matters."

Even in the data-driven environment of professional baseball, Theo and his colleagues recognize that a blind allegiance to numbers will lead you astray.

So before you start writing giant checks to states, Arne, don't start with the numbers -- start with the game, and with the primary purpose of public education -- to create a healthy, supportive environment in which all children can learn, discover their passions and potential, and achieve success in college, and the workplace, and throughout their lives.

Now that would be a blockbuster move.

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