The No-Stats All Star Retires

June 18, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Shane Battier, the man dubbed by Michael Lewis as the No-Stats All Star– has announced his retirement from the NBA at age 35 to take a college basketball analyst position with ESPN.  Battier never looked like much on the stat-sheet but when the statisticians got around to crunching the NBA they discovered that all he does is little things-like help his team win basketball games.  Battier-type “White Space” employees raise important questions about how to approach employee evaluation including teachers.

John White and I spoke on a panel together a few years ago and the topic of evaluation came up.  I sounded a note of caution but Superintendent White saw my bet and raised me by opining that we were in danger of making a fetish out of value added scores and that ultimately we should rely upon the professional judgement of administrators informed by data rather than merely the data itself. At least that is how I interpreted what White said, and if so, I agree with him.

Greg has been saying all along that ultimately this system requires choice.  Give parents meaningful choice, let Principals hire their own teams, have Superintendents evaluate Principals on the basis of the health of their school.  This strikes me as not only as the best way to do teacher eval, but also the only way to create a system to recognize the value of woefully under-appreciated highly effective instructors.  To choose another sports analogy developed by Michael Lewis, the pay of Left-Tackles took off after the advent of free-agency in the NFL.  Once a true market for players had been established, guys who had the skills to block a Lawrence Taylor found themselves in high demand, whereas the old system kept their compensation under wraps.

There are only a few states where we might be inching towards meaningful levels of parental choice, probably fewer still if any where the school leader has anything approaching a free hand to choose their own team. Mechanistic programs that attempt to identify and reward and remove instructors will be better than a unconditional tenure and dance of the lemons system but will never match a system in which trained professionals with healthy incentives exercise professional discretion. The Heat for instance hired Battier because they understood that there is a great deal more going on than the stat sheet, and won a couple of championships.

The primordial soup is slowwwwly starting to bubble…

Now imagine a burnt out and disgruntled Charles Barkley riding the bench of the Heat as a player in 2014 drawing a bigger salary than LeBron because the coaches can’t make best use of their salary cap…


Michael Oher Drafted by the Ravens

April 26, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Michael Lewis is busy typing a new afterword for The Blind Side as we speak, as Michael Oher was selected with the 21st pick in the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Congrats to Michael and his heroic family.

One of the earliest posts I wrote here on JPGB was about Michael. As we celebrate Oher’s incredible good fortune at overcoming incredible odds to get where he is today, I cannot help but to recall Lewis’ chilling words from the book:

Michael Oher was in possession of what had to be among the more conspicuous athletic gifts…and yet, without outside intervention even his talent would likely have been thrown away…If Michael Oher’s talent could be missed, whose couldn’t? Those poor black kids [in the inner-city] were like left tackles: people whose values were hidden in plain sight…Pity the kid inside Hurt Village [in Memphis] who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds.

Think of this quote the next time someone urges you to be “patient” when it comes to education reform.  A mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste, or to never develop.


The No Stats All Star

February 19, 2009

(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.


“It’s laissez-faire until you are in deep $#!t”

November 12, 2008

dead-bull(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The brilliant Michael Lewis looks back at Liar’s Poker and the financial meltdown. Lewis worked for Solomon Brothers, which led the way to securitization of mortages in the 1980s. A must read


Charles Murray vs. Michael Oher

May 10, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side tells a fascinating story about poverty and education through the lens of football. Lewis focuses on two main stories. First, on the legendary coach Bill Walsh’s struggles in the 1980s to overcome the most fearsome defensive force of the era. Second, on an incredibly disadvantaged young man who beat the odds.

As head coach of the San Francisco 49ers Bill Walsh had one big problem: New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor (LT). Attacking from the left–the blind side of a right-handed quarterback–LT humiliated linemen and punished quarterbacks with bone-crushing sacks.

Lewis’ tale becomes truly fascinating when he goes inside the world of the NFL’s talent search for born left tackles–a rare combination of size, speed and agility. These rare men would rise to become the second highest paid positions in professional football for their ability to protect the quarterback from men like LT. This is where the story intersects with education.

Michael Oher grew up in inner-city Memphis. In and out of foster care, Michael’s lucky break came when his dying grandmother extracted a promise from a family friend to get Michael into a private school.

Michael was enrolled in a private Christian school called Briarcrest. On a cold day, a parent of another Briarcrest student found Michael breaking into the school to stay warm. The parent, Leah Anne Tuohy, a successful interior designer and wife of a Memphis businessman, took Michael in. Despite the fact that Michael scarcely spoke, a bond developed between the Tuohys and Michael and they eventually adopted him.

Although he had never played sports Michael was a natural athlete and was identified immediately by college scouts as a potential NFL left tackle. If Michael could get to college and play football, he was very likely to win a multimillion dollar contract to protect a quarterback’s blind side.

The Tuohys and the faculty at Briarcrest engaged in a Herculean effort to make Michael eligible for college. When Michael came to Briarcrest he had only erratically attended school, could scarcely read and knew little about anything.

Lewis skillfully explains the role of poverty in education, writing, “Michael wasn’t stupid. He was ignorant, but a lot of people mistook ignorance for stupidity, and knowingness for intelligence. He’d been denied the life experience that led to knowingness, which every other kid at Briarcrest took for granted.”

Michael was not unintelligent, but he was profoundly uneducated. Leah Anne would, for example, take Michael to an Italian restaurant and order multiple meals in order teach him the difference between different types of pasta dishes.

The implications of Michael’s story for public policy are profound as well. Lewis writes, “Michael Oher was in possession of what had to be among the more conspicuous athletic gifts…and yet, without outside intervention even his talent would likely have been thrown away…If Michael Oher’s talent could be missed, whose couldn’t? Those poor black kids [in the inner-city] were like left tackles: people whose values were hidden in plain sight.”

With a committed family, school, and private tutors, Michael was accepted to college.

Today he is approaching his senior year at the University of Mississippi, made all-conference as a sophomore and junior, and carries a 3.7 grade point average.

Michael made it. But he is very much the exception. For every six inner-city Memphis public school kids with the athletic ability to play college sports, only one qualifies academically to attend college. This says something about the state of inner-city public education.

“Pity the kid inside Hurt Village [in Memphis] who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds,” Lewis wrote. The success of Briarcrest in helping Michael exemplifies the hope that school choice can give to troubled youngsters.

The hole Michael dug himself out of might not have been so deep if not for the dysfunctional Memphis public school system. One cannot help but wonder if Memphis public schools would be so completely indifferent if every student had the opportunity to attend private schools.

Our current education system limits school choice to parents who can afford to buy homes in good neighborhoods or pay private school tuition. Our best teachers often flee the classroom in frustration, or cluster in suburbs far from the students who need them most.

Kids should not require Michael Oher’s incredible luck to make it. Neither should they be stuck in inner-city schools run for the benefit of the adults rather than the kids in the system.

So how does Charles Murray fit into this?

Murray knows far more about IQ testing than I do. I know next to nothing. From what I’ve read of Murray’s works, it does seem obvious that everyone has an upper threshold for academic achievement, a ceiling if you will, and that those ceiling vary from person to person.

It also seems obvious to me, however, that these ceilings are of little practical importance for many inner city children who have never attended a decent school, and who often have parents and grandparents who have never attended a decent school.

In other words, children like Michael Oher have been operating so far below their ceilings that we have every reason to radically improve our education system, especially in the inner cities. I’d even be willing to bet, despite Murray’s characterization of the academic literature on the subject, that if we had before and after adoption IQ tests on Oher, that there would have been substantial growth. I could be wrong about this, and I’d welcome correction, but Michael Oher’s experience begs the question in my mind exactly what it is that IQ tests are actually measuring.

Regardless of such concerns, however, it seems clear to me that efforts to make much more effective use of the huge and tragically mismanaged resources put into inner city schooling should be accelerated.