(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Michael Lewis strikes again with a must read article about Shane Battier, the greatest professional basketball player you’ve never heard of because all he does is help his team win games. The article is Moneyball for the NBA, but with several twists- most prominently some very nasty individual versus team dynamics. In short, in baseball, you essentially can’t aggrandize yourself as a player without also helping your team. If you are getting on base, you are padding your stats and helping your team win.
Not so in basketball, where you can get paid millions for padding your individual stats whether or not you help your team win games. An example raised in the article: NBA players don’t like to heave the ball at the end of the half or game because it lowers their percentage. In short, basketball is fraught with perverse incentives, making it much more like most of real life than baseball. The would be sabremetricians of the NBA have only begun to sort through this quandry.
Battier provides Lewis the perfect lense into this world, as a player that simultaneously has statistics that stink and is one of the most valuable players in the league.
Is there an education angle here? Yes indeed. Battier is what business guys call a “white space” employee. The term refers to the space between boxes on an organizational chart. A white space employee is someone who does whatever it takes to achieve organizational goals and makes the organization work much better as a whole.
As we move into the era of value-added analysis for teacher merit pay, this article provides much food for thought. School leaders must consider carefully what they will reward, and give some consideration to how white space behavior is rewarded. Rewards should not just be based on individual learning gains- reaching school wide goals should also be strongly rewarded. Otherwise my incentive as a math teacher will be to assign six hours of math homework a night- and to hell with everyone else (see Iverson, Allen).
Schools are more complex social organizations than basketball teams, so education sabrematicians have a great of work ahead of them. The good news however is that it can’t be hard to improve a system that generally only rewards teachers for length of service and often meaningless certifications and degrees.
There’s no reward for being a white space player OR a superstar in the current system of teacher compensation-just an old player. Imagine a system of compensation for the NBA in which Larry Bird was still riding the pine on NBA squads and getting paid more money than LeBron, Kobe or Battier. Hall of Fame = National Board Certified, but you no longer want Bird in the game if you want to win.
You wouldn’t need to be Bill James to figure out how to make such a system much more effective. Figuring out the right way to reward all the little invisible things that someone like Shane Battier does to make his team win, well, that’s trickier. Overall we have nowhere to go but up, however. Remember both LeBron and Battier are multi-millionaires, while their equivalents in the teaching world have all too often left the profession in frustration or gone into administration.