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…


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.