Between intellect and instinct

By: | September 6, 2016

I am not a big advocate of movies. I tend to think of them as a 100 plus minute escape from reality. Moreover, movies tend to condition some minds for the oddness that will likely occur in the future. Despite my general disdain of movies, I was recently compelled to watch in its entirety, Bennett Miller/Brad Pitt’s Moneyball (2011)—a noteworthy take on the effects of analytics in Major League Baseball(MLB).

In short, the film chronicles an ex MLB player turned General Manager named William Bean. The film also features a depiction of Paul Depodesta—a recent graduate of Harvard University who majored in Economics. Together the pair repaired the decimated roster of the Oakland Athletics the year after three superstar’s contracts expired and all while using the premise of using analytics to solve the ball club’s small market finance problems. The story goes on to focus on how this analytic brand of baseball was useful in  gaining answers to the problems within that particular organization.

After digesting the movie and pouring over research on analytics, I am convinced school boards can duplicate the process of success analytics brings to many different industries; if the matter is approached systematically and specific to the setting.

Analytics in a Peanut shell

According to Tom Davenport of the Harvard Business Review (2015), there are five essentials to become familiarized with while learning the very basics of analytics. While I won’t mention all five of these essentials, it seems evident that two stand out: 1. Identifying and framing the analytical problem(s) and 2. Exploring the internal and external uses of analytics. Respectively these two essentials are the starting and mid relief pitchers as they relate to how school boards manage the their relationships with school buildings.

Firstly, analytics begins with an identified and particular problem. For the sake of educational discussion, let’s use truancy as the identified agitator. The problem is shared across several departments and not contained to the school building itself. The district is made aware of the problem and those at the both the building and district level begin to determine what type of data is available to them internally as well as what other sources may avail themselves before the end of the 9th inning. The internal data set or ‘small data’ district’s have at their fingertips; PowerSchool, Infinite Campus, Blackboard, and or Skyward all have interesting caveats or analytical tools that can attribute to seeing the aforementioned problem of truancy being diminished. But what about the ‘Big Data’ sets a school does not hold on its server? Particular neighborhood conditions that disable the student from attending school routinely, county medical outbreaks that run licentious in certain communities or areas of town? Or perhaps the lack of childcare in correlation with a district’s Pre K and kindergarten programs could be a potential upset. Maybe it is the increasing talk of the charter school lottery or school voucher program which creates a reservation in the parents mind about consistent school attendance. Regardless of the contributing factor, these data sets may not be directly on a district’s server and are highly in winning the issue of truancy. Analytics uses both big and small data sets to identify the problem and provide solutions in order to further the academic success of the district.

Who’s on First?

While School Boards can be seen as the General Manager duo of Bean and Depodesta—who eventually proved the system worked by winning The American League West Pennant with 1 more win than the previous season and minus the three superstars the organization could no longer pay, the players most involved in making schools better via analytics are those tech geniuses employed by the district. There is no one player who is of superstar significance.

Instead, there is a meticulous way of managing the district in order to gain consecutive wins towards the identified problems in need of solutions. Those who reside inside the district office and are responsible for pulling reports at the request of those inside the building are at the top of the batting order and often times need to ingratiate themselves more at a building level. Instead of reacting to the data request of a principal aka coach of the school, these intellectual geniuses will need to become more proactive in running daily and weekly data sets against the norm of the district, state, and other district’s they want to emulate.

The problem being they know the data, often times too well, and are not always able to articulate what the data means in mutually beneficial ways. This leaves the Coach of the building to decipher by instinct which at times does not require a data set big or small. In baseball, there is a situation called a ‘pickle’. It occurs when a runner is trapped between two bases and needs to safely return to one base that is not occupied by another runner and before he tagged out with an opposing player in possession of the ball. This accurately describes a principal when data is requested and not accurately articulated or the implications are not completely understood. More consideration to how the data can be used both intellectually as well as instinctively is the same analytics process which lead the Oakland A’s to a twenty game winning streak, a modern era Major League Baseball record.

Board and Building Relationships

I have heard it said many times that schools should not be ran like business. I agree. However, districts have to be ran like businesses with the first customer being the school building. Schools are in need in an eerily and similar way to how customers have needs. The school needs to put out a great product—well educated students who will become productive citizens. These students are seen as W’s to the community and family they serve. When the school regularly produces student growth and success; fans are created from near and far. When fans or stakeholders are pleased with the product, more finances into the district are foreseeable. What about the gap between School Board, District management, and school building leaders? For School Boards, it may be a few walk throughs of the club house, I mean school building and after an activity or a prior to a media meeting. District management may be a little more routinely as the nature of some district positions require.  

School Boards are the owners with District management being the GM. Operational efficiency in education has to evolve into the School Board’s understanding of the school building as a customer instead of an internal partner. One of the primary purposes of a School Board is to safeguard the finances and provide equity in learning for the district’s customer (the school building) and the customer’s customer (the students). By providing safe and secure opportunities to infuse analytics as the new ‘data diving’—a term I greatly despise as ‘diving’ never implies returning to a surface, providing intermediary who can interpret the data from the source in a common language so that it can be used to manage problems within the school building; School Boards can focus more on prevalent issues such as referendums which wishful thinking would suggest to be a non issue based on the solving of district issues in turn producing W’s and more tax dollars from purchasing families eager to relocate into the district.

Closing the Issue with Analytics

The 2002 Oakland A’s season ended with several highlights; a twenty game winning streak, the AL West Pennant Championship despite having lost three superstars and countless other decent players due to budget and or culture constraints, and evaluating eyes of industries across the world glaring at how analytics can be an asset to just about any situation. The question becomes, why school districts have not completely embraced the notion that analytics promotes a deeper understanding of how problems can be solved implementing the use of big and small data sets. In baseball, there is such a player called a closing pitcher. His job is to make sure that as few runs as possible occur while he is pitching. His priority remains to not allow anymore runs that would cause his team to tie or in worst case scenario loose. His pitch of choice is analytics. He recognizes the problem is a few outs. His data set is the type of pitch he is capable of commanding versus the type of pitch the batter is either expecting or likely to swing a miss at.

Remember our Truancy problem from above? By the use of analytics, we can acquire a much more realistic assessment of the problem. We can determine how many students from past years who have like addresses have experienced truancy issues. We can develop correlations between discipline and social emotional issues associated with truancy as well as parent involvement or lack of. From there, the problem becomes a quest for regularization which can lead to understanding between intellect and instinct; both of which are needed to improve how School Boards manage school issues for consistent W’s.      

—Diallo Telli Brown is an administrator of an alternative private day school and urban education advocate, author, and speaker.