Time Matters Blog

What Baseball Can Teach Us About Education Reform

I don’t think I’ve ever linked to an ESPN story in a blog post for NCTL, but you’ll forgive me this exception.  Wednesday, those responsible for voting for inductees into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, the members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, collectively decided that no one on the ballot was worthy of getting in this year. (That is, no single candidate reached the required minimum of 75 percent of total votes.) This is only the eighth time in history when there will be no new players inducted and, this result comes despite the fact that the class included once great players Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Now you don’t need me to tell you why the baseball writers were disinclined to include a hitter who holds both the total and the single season record for home runs or the only pitcher in baseball history to win as many as seven Cy Young awards.  These two players—and, indeed, possibly an entire generation of players—have been excluded from the Hall of Fame (thus far) because their achievements are tainted by their alleged (and, at some level, proven) use of anabolic steroids. To put their sin in more basic terms, these players cheated: they used illegal substances that enhanced their own performance, over and above what they could achieve naturally. 
 
By now, you may be wondering what this news has to do with education reform.  To my mind, there are two lessons to be drawn.  The first is that these players’ sins teach us that sometimes an obsession with performance can lead us to focus only on the performance measures themselves, rather than the honor that comes from the hard work of doing a good job, even if that means the absolute metrics themselves might be compromised a bit.  So, in education, I do worry that sometimes we focus too much on test score results, rather than on what should be the true measure of a quality education: developing in children a love of learning and the desire to always work hard and try your best.  I admit that this connection is a bit of a stretch, but when baseball players care only about the number of strikeouts they deliver or the number of home runs they hit—to the exclusion of appreciating the natural process that it takes to achieve them—it reminds me a bit of education observers who sometimes get carried away with what test scores tell us, rather than on the underlying growth and development of children.
 
The second connection has to do with how those who may have cheated by taking steroids might have affected the history of baseball.  Consider what Hall of Famer, Al Kaline, had to say yesterday:
 
What really gets me is seeing how some of these players associated with drugs have jumped over many of the greats in our game. Numbers mean a lot in baseball, maybe more so than in any other sport. And going back to Babe Ruth, and players like Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson and Willie Mays, seeing people jump over them with 600, 700 home runs, I don't like to see that. 
 
It is on this point that I would respectfully disagree with the former Detroit Tiger.  You see, in my view, baseball, like all great institutions, must change over time simply because the surrounding world has changed. Not only is there no way to set up a wall between the game and the rest of the world, it would be counterproductive. The fact that players today lift weights or wear more “breatheable” uniforms or use better designed bats helps the game of baseball because it makes all the players better. It doesn’t make the accomplishments of those who came before any less; they were great for their time. But now, being great means that, at a bare minimum, you have to be in top physical shape and use the latest equipment.  
 
Likewise, if we expect our public schools today to be great, they must not operate the way they did in previous generations.  They simply must keep up with the challenges of the modern world.  A great school in the 1950s would be only mediocre today because it wouldn’t be integrating computers in the classroom or applying the latest research or—as you would expect me to say—would be operating on a traditional calendar.
 
So, whether or not you endorse the idea of keeping out Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens—or a host of other players—out of the Hall of Fame because of their alleged cheating, you must at least recognize that the game of baseball has forever changed from what it once was. Baseball will thrive in the future if it always remains focused on getting ever better. The same should be said of public education.