On-Base-Slugging and Education

imageEarlier today I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition when Rachel Martin was talking to Mike Pesca (slate.com) about the Houston Astros’ decision to favor On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) over the better understood Batting Average. Perhaps OPS is a better indication of a batter’s hitting value, but it’s not the kind of thing that is easy to evaluate. It comes to us via the engine of baseball big-data and the power of analytics to tell us, with accuracy what we might have formerly only argued about in a bar.

Some people are not reacting well to OPS and an entire crop of new baseball stats. “There’s too much to learn.” “You need a computer.” “Kids can’t keep track of these things in the stands on their score cards.”

All true, but those “kids” probably have an app for OPS on their smartphone which actually is a computer. So the problem is that I can’t teach my kid about OPS unless I learn how to use the app.

I was in school during the introduction of New Math, as well as imagea failed attempt to modernize the study of English grammar in the mid-60s. I loved New Math; different based numbers, set theory and Boolean logic defined my happy place. I was not a fan of structural grammar, Type-1 words and other such nonsense. I didn’t enter my new school district with a strong understanding of grammar. I wasn’t that interested in grammar so I became the unfortunate by-product of a failed experiment in education.

What does New Math have to do with baseball? Nothing, but both serve to illustrate my concerns about the current thinking in education.

The school system in our town, like many across the country, is moving to Competency-Based Education. On the surface, this sounds great. Instead of slogging your way through Algebra, earning a ‘D’ and moving onto Calculus, you actually have to learn Algebra (which I think is a good thing).

In addition to knowing math and science and, oh by the way, grammar, competency-based education requires students to demonstrate an ability to solve problems, collaborate and apply what they’ve learned to different situations. I love that idea! I had one class in high school that was structured this way and it had a profound influence on my life.

I took an English class in 12th grade where we read books like “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” We weren’t given tests and we weren’t asked to write traditional book reports. Instead, we discussed the books and the teacher graded us based on those discussions. Our final project was to read “The Greening of America” and write a paper answering the question “what did this book make you think about?” The class strengthened my appreciation for reading and the teacher encouraged me to consider writing in the future.

However good Competency-Based Education might be, like OPS it will be hard to measure and unlike OPS, computers aren’t going to help. We were told recently that:

Knowing whether or not a student is mastering a particular competency will rely heavily on student self-assessment.

This worries me because self-awareness doesn’t seem to be strength among most high school students.

Posting a selfie on Instagram does not make one self-aware.

I think it’s a challenge for a high school student to truly be self-aware. So much of the student experience is new, with good and bad being defined by peers, that the whole concept of ‘self’ is under pressure. How does a teenager know if he or she is really understanding a subject or creatively solving a problem? How do they distinguish between “I’m not contributing” and “they don’t like me?”

I’m equally worried about the teachers’ ability to assess competency. Material prepared by our school says that:

“Competency can be demonstrated on multiple assignments, assessments, projects and presentations, etc.

That sounds great unless a non-technical teacher mistakes “uses PowerPoint well” for “understands the subject.” I also worry that a teacher in one subject area might not recognize competency in another. The question I posed during a recent meeting was:

Will a History teacher recognize that a paper describing the fact that a battle was lost due to an army’s inadequate supply line demonstrates competency in math if it includes an analysis of rail capacity?

Unanswered but acknowledged as being a good question, I was concerned.

I also voiced a concern that stems from my own experience – how are the parents of these children going to help? My parents were absolutely unprepared to help me learn New Math or discuss Type-1 words. How do today’s parents prepare to assess their children’s competency?

One thing that allays some of my fear is the obvious commitment, imageconcern and passion of the education professionals involved in this effort. Our school district hasn’t been among the high-performing districts in the state but it seems to be handling this challenge very well.

I would suggest that parents and citizens get involved. Teachers may not have real experience with collaboration techniques, but businesses are all over that subject. Volunteer some time to present a guest lecture, guide a project team or work with a group as an advisor. If you are a parent, learn as much about the concepts of Competency Based Education as you can. Also, try to screw your head on a little differently than the way it was left when you graduated from high school. If there is a committee working on this issue in your town, offer to join them. If you do join a committee, be careful not to get dragged onto 6 more.

15 thoughts on “On-Base-Slugging and Education

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  1. Pictures – That’s PNC Park, arguably the best baseball stadium in America although the Pirates OPS probably stinks right now. The illustration is a typical homework assignment from my early days of New Math. At the bottom is our high school the day I attended a meeting on the subject of Competency-Based Education.


  2. “Competency can be demonstrated on multiple assignments, assessments, projects and presentations, etc.”
    Assessing projects and presentations can be subjective. The teacher will need to have a reliable rubric in place to ensure fair and consistent assessment of the student’s work.


  3. I just googled “the greening of America” after reading what you wrote (book titles can be catchy, specially when you work as me in a field in which “greening” can take many senses). Seems a quite interesting book by what I can see, in a certain sense is as if we were going back to the seventies, but with no sixties in the previous decade; this last thing is not entirely related to what you wrote, but is like a recurring idea I find often these days, even if my memories of the 70s are those of childhood in a country quite different from America.


    1. We lost the energy or the profound sense of purpose that we had in the 60’s. In many ways, the baby boomers have slipped into a pattern that we would have railed against when we were growing up. The book, the teacher, the class and the way he taught were all somewhat controversial even while being popular. It was the first time I observed that mix of responses to things. Thanks for the comment and for reading.


  4. Assessment is such a big topic in education these days. It doesnt always go over well because doing it properly takes a lot more time than just giving a test and moving on. When assessment for learning is done well (the combination of formative & summative tasks), then ideally, the whole learning process can become more transformative and beneficial. in my experience, self-assessment runs more smoothly when students have lots of practice and benchmarks to learn from first. Thought provoking post!


    1. Thanks Jaime, I was hoping to hear from some of the teachers and former teachers that are out there. Our school is beginning now with the 6th grade class. They will be the first to graduate (in 2020) under a competency-based curriculum and program. They will have a competency-based transcript and will have never seen a traditional (A, B, C, D, F) report card. My fear is that, for whatever reason, the tide will shift and the school will revert to the “old way” while these kids are on their way. That’s what happened to “structural” or “new” English while I was still in school.


      1. I agree — that kind of sudden 180 is always a fear when jumping into a big change. I hope the district provides lots of training & support to make it a success. The idea of doing away with letter grades sounds wonderful — and maybe it will help kids & parents shift the focus away from grades. An obsession with marks at such a young can sometimes kill any budding love for lifelong learning. There is a great book by psychologist Carol Dweck called Mindset and in it she shares her research on praise, effort, resilience, the benefit of experiencing failure & success…these elements that can either create a fixed or growth mindset in learners. What would be awesome is to graduate a generation of kids with growth mindsets who aren’t afraid of trying things over and over and who aren’t afraid of feedback and criticism along the way.


        1. I hope they can make it work. I have been on the Technical Education committee for over 15 years, and they have asked us to help evaluate the competencies and the assessments. Lifelong learning is one of the foundation goals of the program.


          1. Its a good start that they are seeking feedback & criticism from you & others. Hopefully that helps to maintain relevancy in the goals and objectives behind the curriculum change. The other vital piece will be adequate funding to ensure continuity with the teachers and administration involved. Otherwise, constant budget cuts & layoffs would just set the whole thing up for failure.

            This is a more holistic and very thoughtful direction for the district to take — I really admire what’s happening!


            1. The budget question is a concern. When my daughter was in this school system, they started and stopped funding for Spanish language multiple times. She ended up taking Spanish I three times and then the program was scrapped. This seems to be going better.


  5. You trigger, as often, a load of thoughts and reflection. I won’t talk about baseball (I love the uniform but don’t know the rules well!)
    As you know, I grew up abroad, so my experience with the American education system is strictly through my four children. My youngest one is graduating this month. And I must admit that I am happy about it. I have absolutely embraced the public school education during all these years, but saw a deep change as years went by. The constant assessment and testing is definitely part of the problem, leading to teachers’ stress. The new Core program sounded good as it is supposed to link all subjects. But some of my friends who teach told me that behind the idea there are more tests and assessments. As Montaigne said, “Mieux vaut une tête bien faite qu’une tête bien pleine.” Or in English: “Better a head well educated than a head full fo facts.”
    Thank you, Dan, for this timely post and all the links, too.


    1. The Montaigne quote is perfect at this time. As I understand it, The Competency-Based approach, at least in our schools, will be designed to support the Common Core. I have some issues with that, ranging from the excessive emphasis on testing to what seems, in some cases, like teaching things that children aren’t really ready to learn. In some ways, the idea of assessing competency seems at odds with Common Core where it appears we would be satisfied with the “head full of facts” you mention. The original title for this post was “I hope they get this right” but then I heard the story on baseball and I got side-tracked. Our school district seems to be going slowly, but some kids will have their education turned into a grand experiment. Thank, as always for reading and for taking the time to comment.


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