After spending yesterday afternoon watching my beloved Boston Red Sox blow another game in the ninth inning, I was reminded of a simple fact: some losses are more emotionally significant than others.
As my disappointment threatened to disrupt the rest of my Memorial Day – we were so close! – I realized there’s a good argument to be made that the one statistic in the data-obsessed world of professional baseball most likely to at least partially reflect the collective confidence of a team is the one the Sox’s shaky new closer, Alfredo Aceves, failed to earn for his team yesterday: the save.
Ironically, saves didn’t even exist as an official statistic until 1960, when baseball writer Jerome Holtzman proposed it as a way to better measure the effectiveness of relief pitchers. Since then, the relevance of the stat has been hotly debated for a variety of reasons, although no one doubts the emotional toll a string of late-inning defeats can have on a team – or, by contrast, the emotional power a string of late-inning victories can unleash. Indeed, the numbers bear out an intriguing truism: when an underrated team has a relief pitcher with a huge number of saves, that team is also hugely likely to overachieve.
Which takes us to the modern world of education reform, and the ongoing efforts to capture more accurately the elusive nature of teacher quality. What is the statistical equivalent of a “save” in teaching – and if we measured it, would it help us better assess a teacher’s ability to support the learning and growth of children?
This is not an insignificant question. The Gates Foundation is currently spending millions of dollars in an effort to “uncover and develop a set of measures that work together to form a more complete indicator of a teacher’s impact on student achievement.” Districts across the country are experimenting with new ways to evaluate what teachers do – and how they do it. And the Obama Administration is incentivizing states to undertake such work as part of its controversial Race to the Top program.
Despite all this energy, however, no one – as far as I can tell – is seeking to measure what goes into being a classroom closer.
In baseball, it works like this: a pitcher can’t receive a save unless the game is near its conclusion, his team is narrowly ahead, and he records the final out. In education, the rules would be a little less concrete, but not unbearably so: a teacher would need to recognize that a student was in danger of losing his or her capacity to participate meaningfully in a lesson, and behave in such a way as to “save” the student’s ability to focus, and allow the learning to proceed.
Anyone who has spent time in a school knows that this sort of thing happens all the time, and is usually what educators are thinking of when they say that the true impact of their work can’t be measured. A child who can’t stay in his chair because he struggles with ADHD. A conflict between friends during lunchtime that threatens to derail the day. A new relative whose behavior disrupts the equilibrium of a student’s home life.
Just as in baseball, school-based save situations exist when the emotional stakes are highest. They are the moments that determine whether the ultimate win of the day – supporting the learning and growth of children – hangs in the balance. They are the relationship-rich exchanges that shape the success or failure of the most troubled students. And as with baseball prior to 1960, they are the blind spots in our current efforts to measure an educator’s overall value.
Of course, relief pitchers have a big advantage over educators when it comes to having their saves recorded: statisticians keep track of every single event in every single game. But that doesn’t mean we need to wait until a similar capacity exists in American classrooms – or even that we should pursue such a goal. Instead, classroom closers could earn saves one of two ways: by self-reporting the event, or by awarding one to a colleague whose learning-saving actions you were privileged enough to witness.
Keeping track of these sorts of events wouldn’t make sense for purposes of awarding bonuses or ranking teachers against one another. But it would be a way to remind us that, in the end, the skill of a teacher is as much about late-game emotional heroics as it is about everyday intellectual growth.
(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)