Make Decisions With Data

By Patte Barth

Last summer’s blockbuster film “Moneyball” accomplished the improbable: It filled movie theaters with famously math-phobic Americans who were nonetheless willing to spend two plus hours with statistics. OK, so the combination of Brad Pitt and a good baseball yarn didn’t hurt, either. But ultimately, this is a movie about using research and data to reach goals.

As such, “Moneyball” has attracted a lot of comparisons with how we should run various institutions, including our public schools. This in turn has unleashed the predictable “why public schools aren’t baseball” backlash. And as a former English major, I understand the dangers of metaphors that no longer make sense. But I still would argue the film offers some hard lessons schools would do well to heed, especially as they are being called upon to do more with shrinking dollars.

For readers who may be unaware of the film’s premise, “Moneyball” follows general manager Billy Beane, who has the thankless task of fielding a major league team on a quarter of what the mega-funded Yankees spend on players. Beane defies his staff and throws out conventional baseball wisdom -- one based on big bats and intuition -- to instead take an analytical approach to recruiting unknown, inexpensive players who can get on base and thereby win games. I give nothing away to report that he succeeds.

School leaders are up against an even greater challenge. Never having been flush with cash to begin with, school districts have taken a brutal hit in the recession, and conservative projections don’t expect them to return to 2008 levels for at least five years. At the same time, a real urgency exists to educate all students to even higher standards so that they will be ready to succeed in college and good jobs, and so the nation can remain competitive.

Effective school leaders are taking a page from the Beane book of leading through analysis to closely examine how their resources are currently being used, identify where the need is greatest, and target those resources to where they will produce the greatest return on investment. Data can highlight the right questions to ask and lead schools to the right answers. But make no mistake: This does not mean the answers will necessarily be easy or popular. And the politics can get sticky.

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