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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Warren Buffett, Ping-Pong, and School Reform

By Rick Hess — January 30, 2018 4 min read
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As you may have seen, last month Warren Buffett won a million-dollar bet. A decade ago, he bet that, between 2008 and 2017, a few hand-picked, costly, exclusive hedge funds would perform worse than the overall stock market. Buffett won easily. Of course, his big victory merely demonstrated something that has been documented time and again over the past forty-plus years, which is that investors are usually better off if they just buy “index” funds and steer clear of “expert” stock pickers.

And yet, the lion’s share of stock market investment is still directed to high-cost, actively traded funds, and lots of investors continue to evince an uncanny habit of jumping in and out of the market at precisely the wrong time. All of this self-defeating behavior is encouraged and facilitated by an industry of motivated, smart-sounding investment managers who use charts and jargon to explain why their approach is special.

Meanwhile, a few days ago, the Washington Post‘s Dan Steinberg penned an exquisite column titled, “No Spin Zone: How Ping-Pong Annually Impacts the NFL Playoffs.” Steinberg noted that this year’s football reporting has featured some breathless coverage suggesting that the Jacksonville Jaguars’ decision to ditch locker room ping-ping helped signal the new coach’s seriousness and fuel the team’s success. Steinberg quotes one AP story: “When [Doug] Marrone was hired . . . high on his to-do list was to change the culture in Jacksonville. . . The ping-pong table was the first to go.”

Of course, Steinberg also notes that last year, an energetic Super Bowl Nation reporter wrote of the Atlanta Falcons, “To suggest that ping-pong helped get the team to where it is today, its first Super Bowl berth since [1998], may seem like an effort to oversimplify the situation. But ping-pong had a role in building the bond between these players and instilling an unshakable sense of competition in a team that previously lacked it.” Steinberg makes clear how easy it is to find testimonials to the good/bad effects of ping-pong depending on a reporter’s bent and how a given team fared in a given year.

What does any of this have to do with education?

People have a deep-seated need to believe that someone has an answer to whatever ails us: whether that’s the glib stock picker, the intense coach who frowns on ping-pong, the energetic coach who embraces ping-pong, or the education reformer with a menu of solutions which supposedly worked somewhere. When things don’t work out, we’re disinclined to pause and ask if we’re going about this all wrong or if our whirligig activity is part of the problem. After all, investors would be better off if they stopped chasing answers. And the most successful football teams tend to be those with steady leadership and strong cultures—eschewing the temptation to chase the latest fad in locker-room recreation.

I think all this applies to schooling, in spades. I was in Cleveland the other day, talking about Letters to a Young Education Reformer. I observed that the frenzied, pin-wheeling search for the next exciting recipe can make it that much harder for schools or systems to build coherent cultures. As soon as we opened it up for audience questions, of course, attendees immediately started asking which cities or countries I regard as having the right exciting recipe.

People really want to know if the answer is to play ping-pong or to ban it. I get it. We’re all wired that way. And it’s really unsatisfying to hear that it doesn’t matter whether or not your team plays ping-pong—but how ping-pong fits into the larger culture and how that culture is shaped. In schooling, the corollary is that things like personalized learning, teacher evaluation, and school turnarounds are swell—but only if you do them well, and that doing them well is more about execution than about visiting Finland or Fairfax County. Who wants to hear that?

We don’t like answers which feel so conditional and uncertain. We’d much prefer to search out the “right” hedge fund or ping-pong formula, even if experience and common sense teach us that it doesn’t exist. We want answers imbued with the bright sheen of reassurance. That’s why we’ve made an industry out of school reform, filled with smart, impassioned people who can explain why this next thing will deliver—even if that last try, and the one before that, and the one before that—didn’t.

The lesson? I’m struck that our natural, admirable enthusiasm and yearning for “best practices” can turn destructive. It tempts us into an endless, circular search for solutions—one in which we never stop long enough to ask whether the search itself is misguided. And while reformers, educators, authors, advocates, and researchers are celebrated for offering shiny new answers, there’s little percentage in asking whether these amount to any more than a new batch of overhyped hedge funds. We need more people to pose that question. I wonder if Warren Buffett might be open to placing a few more bets.

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