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What Education Can Learn From Baseball

By José Vilson — June 09, 2010 6 min read
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A sense of euphoria came over me as I traveled with my students to New York’s Citi Field for a game between the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals. A huge fan of the Yankees and of baseball, I had a strange awareness against the sea of orange and blue hats in the brick and steel stadium: The perfectly aligned seats, the well-kept lime-tinted artificial turf, the giant-screen TV pointed to a game many fans consider immaculate at the core.

Baseball’s time-tested simplicity and statistical intricacies have always competed for the adoration of the regular fan. But it wasn’t so long ago when business tainted baseball’s majesty. In 1994, Major League Baseball lost most of its credibility after a debilitating players’ strike canceled a whole post-season, including the World Series and spring training. While the dauntless few continued their adoration of the game, the regular fan dropped off the sport, favoring basketball or football. Fans protested, the media stoked the fires, and everyone from the commissioner to the players’ union felt the sting of allowing this unfiltered game to be sullied by the soot of business.

It made baseball desperate, and many teams gave in to the temptation of exaggerating parts of the game into cartoon-like hyperbole. Players used performance-enhancing drugs to drive more home runs out of the park. Owners used all their resources and then some to land the latest and greatest players, breaking salary records every summer. And my Yankees, known for their braggadocio, signed hugely expensive free agents as a gambit to get their attendance up, but lost successive opportunities to win championships for almost a decade.

A Loss of Innocence

I see parallels between baseball’s era of lost innocence and what American public education is experiencing today: the prevailing point of view that we can earn public approval by putting more stars in the classroom and using performance enhancement tricks to knock math and reading test scores out of the park.

Not long ago Newsweek raised the ire of most American teachers when the cover juxtaposed the headline “The Key to Saving American Schools” against a blackboard covered with the simplistic chalk-written message, “Fire bad teachers.” This frontal attack on teaching forces educators to see through the smoke and mirrors that education reformers put up when they say it’s about “the kids” and “the learning.” They’re coming after us like a mindless mob, either lacking understanding about the work we do, or just not caring.

Yes, as educators we should make sure we provide an equitable education for all students. We absolutely must do that. But we also must retain good teachers in the classrooms where they’re needed most. We must help good teachers stay good, and give struggling teachers the chance to become effective, instead of simply discarding them and hoping that a few “stars” will fix the problems. The Newsweek cover offers a simplistic and disingenuous argument on the woes of education.

Most veteran educators can tell you that, while their idealism may have waned during the NCLB era, their devotion to educating students and finding new and better ways to teach the material never died. But movements to pay children for getting answers right, or to base salaries on questionable state-wide assessments may dampen even these passions. We understand the difference between students who walk into the classroom of a confident teacher whose body of work speaks for itself, who has been vetted by administrators, students, and fellow teachers, and students who dread another day at school with a frazzled teacher who, in spite of his or her devotion to teaching and willingness to improve, can’t shake the thought that two days of assessments can determine job security.

What Does Baseball Have to Tell Us?

After a decade of drama, scandals, and collapsed promises, baseball began to see a turn-around, with every stakeholder being listened to and invited to work towards improving the experience of the game. Baseball rediscovered its fundamentals.

Effective baseball teams, more than any other sport, resemble a school structure for the following reasons:

• Each player’s individual performance has a big effect on the entire team’s performance: Every home run, every error, and every pitch can affect how the other players perform on the field.

• Every good team needs a great manager, and he (or she) needs a set of assistant coaches who focus on a particular part of the game, and can provide a different view of the game.

• Often, the general manager has to make sure the right players are in place through free agency, but more often than not, it’s actually building the homegrown players that can make or break a ball club.

• In baseball, team members get a chance to meet between innings, and when they’re out in the field, they’re constantly thinking about their positions and how their individual plays, in concert with their teammates, will ultimately determine whether they win.

Looking to the Future

In the same way, the best schools think of themselves as a team. Each class may have open doors, but the teachers often work individually. Between periods, teachers are meeting, talking, and planning. The principal’s also looking at the big picture and putting the pieces together, putting the right coaches and staff in the right places to support the teachers in the building. Each teacher isn’t only responsible for the students in their grade, they’re responsible for the students’ performance in coming years as they build their content knowledge and skill sets. It’s more than building for that year, it’s building for the future.

The deans, the specialists, and the custodial staff all play an integral role as well. The core of the school team has to be drafted and developed into great players. School leaders have to scout talent that fits the vision and mission. The teachers and principals in good schools also study the game, practice often, and train to get in top shape. They’re studying the newest and latest, observing their practices and the results they get.

That’s how baseball dynasties and great schools must work. I don’t agree with everything going on in baseball— the spike in ticket prices and the astronomical cost of stadium food and drink, just to name a few. Yet certain understandings about the essential nature of the game have come back in full force. Teams can’t win championships simply by having a roster of big-ticket players. The word “union” doesn’t get thrown around in newspapers, because if one player acts irresponsibly, due process happens swiftly. Most importantly, every player with a good body of work gets a second chance either by transferring to a different team or getting developed within the system. A player has to try hard to fail when an organization invests enough time, attention, and money in that individual’s potential.

As the rain started pouring on our children and the adults bought rounds of hot cocoa, I felt serenaded by the knock of the bat’s wood to seamed ball, the claps following Mr. Met’s prompts, the buzz of a young audience learning how to enjoy the game we almost lost in 1994. And I was thinking there’s still time for educators to reflect on baseball’s recent history and build a case study for our own culture shift.

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