The Tragedy of Baseball and Teaching

Published:December 9, 2019

I like baseball.


It’s a sport largely based around chance and failure.  No matter how pretty the swing, no matter how hard the collision between bat and ball, success is not guaranteed.  The best hitters in history failed to do their job about 60% of the time. The frustration can get to even the most grizzled veterans as they watch screaming line drives disappear into a fielder’s glove instead of finding outfield grass.  Experts who study advanced hitting metrics understand that the context and quality of a hitter’s plate appearances tell you so much more about a player’s skill than their batting average or RBI total. Baseball is a sport in which you can do everything well, and still lose.  


Welcome to teaching.


Like baseball, it is a job in which you can do everything well, and still not get results.  It’s a job in which you can control the quality of your lessons and skill of your delivery, but you can’t guarantee student outcomes.  The truth about both teaching and baseball is that simple diagnosis and easy to understand analysis is impossible… there are simply too many variables. You could break every single season hitting record in the books… while your team loses 100 games.  With that in mind… what kind of sense does it make to lambast the quality of public schools when almost all the things that affect achievement the most are completely out of their control?


The barreled up line drive that the shortstop effortlessly snares?  That’s a teacher teaching kids who are stuck in poverty.


The pitch down the middle that gets called a ball?  That’s the student who missed a great lesson because their parents are opioid addicts.


The perfect game that was lost on the last out because the umpire missed a call (yes that actually happened)?  That’s a school being judged on low test scores without looking at the context of the district.


Opponents of public education, always trying to weasel in school privatization policies and tear down public institutions, will often point to struggling schools as proof that public education is terrible, society is in trouble, and should be replaced with disruptive “innovations” like private and charter schools, and free market competition.  But they have their logic backward. Schools are a reflection of society, not the other way around. If people don’t like what they see in the mirror, well, maybe we should stop trying to smash the mirror and instead, fix what is being reflected.


 The Tampa Bay Rays have no World Series titles not because they are poorly managed (they actually do pretty well considering their payroll).  They have no championships because every year they have to beat the twin 200 million dollar behemoths, Boston and New York.  


And you know what?  That’s fine! Maybe the baseball metaphor fails here, because honestly, it’s ok to run baseball clubs as a for-profit business.  Competition is fantastic in sports and economics, but we should be smart and honest enough to recognize that incentives and outcomes in one field don’t always translate to another.  Free market competition and profit incentives might work as intended in the business world, but can you imagine organizing your family under those principles? Your friends? Your church?  Or, ahem…. your local schools?


If we really want to help schools and teachers, and not just make money off the backs of our students, we have to commit to work toward a more fair and equitable society first.  To stretch this metaphor once more, teachers are hitting as well as they ever have… but poverty plays impeccable defense.


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