Thursday, June 30, 2011

there are very few great baseball players in the minors

This is going to largely rehash a comment I put up there, but I wanted to respond to this piece on education reform from Matt Yglesias. He uses a baseball analogy:
Baseball teams don’t pay a premium to guys who hit lots of home runs in order to create “incentives” for people to hit home runs. If that worked, we’d all be major league sluggers! Baseball teams pay a premium to guys who lots of home runs because home run hitters are valuable contributors to baseball teams. Hitters who perform worse are less valuable. And hitters who perform very poorly are drummed out of MLB. That’s not really about incentives; it’s about attracting and retaining high performers to your organization.
This is more telling than he knows: baseball players who are cut or sent down to the minors tend to be replaced by other marginal baseball players. It's a truism in baseball: most prospects don't pan out, and even those regarded as can't miss fail constantly. I think it's really a generative analogy! We have a tremendously well resourced structure to "attract and retain high performers" in baseball. They are the highest paid athletes in sports, generally speaking. Stars are celebrities and can make millions more in endorsement deals. Great players are showered with praise, adulation, and attention. Even non-stars live lavish lifestyles, and the benefits in the sexual and romantic realms are legendary. We have a system, in other words, that should attract just about everyone qualified to play baseball. There's almost no other job that such a person could do that would reward him equally.

And yet, somehow, Julio Lugo-- he of the .580 OPS-- played in 93 major league games in 2010. Despite terrible-bordering-on-putrid production, he was highly employable in the major leagues. All of those incentives still didn't mean that we suddenly had better baseball players than Julio Lugo leaping ahead and taking his spot. Ah, but he's barely playing in 2011! Who is getting his starts for the Atlanta Braves, his team? Why, Alex Gonzalez, he of the still-quite-awful .639 OPS. And there are teams that don't have any shortstops as good as Alex Gonzalez! This phenomenon is seen again and again in sports: players who are objectively bad at their jobs enjoy long and lucrative careers, because the amount of people who can effectively play baseball is limited independent of our desire to find more. It turns out that the sincere desire to find great baseball players, backed by tremendous resources used towards that end, is not a fool proof prescription for actually finding them. Human beings are in fact constrained by reality, after all.

Now, you could very reasonably point out that the collection of traits necessary to be a good teacher are likely far less rare than the collection of traits necessary to be a good baseball player. But I would suggest  that this is significantly balanced by the fact that we need vastly more teachers than we need professional baseball players in our society. And I think that the essential logic is the same: there's this weird implicit assumption in education reform circles that if you fire a bunch of teachers you're going to get a bunch of better teachers. Even before we talk about the vastly complicated issues of how to fairly evaluate teachers and how to separate student-dependent variables from teacher-dependent variables, there's the fact that many fired teachers are likely to be replaced by other marginal teachers.

I chose my examples carefully: Alex Gonzalez is indeed a better baseball player than Julio Lugo. (I could very easily have found poor baseball players that were replaced by even worse baseball players.) A .059 improvement in OPS isn't nearly enough to make Gonzalez a quality hitter but it isn't nothing. I'm not a fatalist, and I don't think teaching quality doesn't matter at all, nor do I think that there is no room for improved outcomes. It's just a lot harder to gauge than in baseball. There's no teacher OPS, and I must point out that it is not written in the sky that humanity is entitled to find effective teaching metrics. There's every reason to continue to seek improvement and I intend to. But modesty of expectations seems to me to be the only rational response to decades of discouraging data and failed experiments, and the "we can do something because we should" attitude is so dominant within the discourse of reform that I find it almost impossible to discuss with passionate reformers. Should still implies can. Otherwise sober and empirically-minded people become daydream believers on the topic of education reform.

It's the same old saw from me, at the end of the day: education reform is a subject where the large majority of participants seem to be interested only in desire and intent, not reality. What is possible comes first.


Justin said...

I think there is a better analogy that reaches the opposite conclusion.

The bad baseball players you called out are actually exceptionally skilled baseball players. Furthermore, there is a reason those people chose baseball over, say, soccer or tennis. For some, one component of that choice is likely to have been the relative compensation between sports.

American men's soccer performs poorly in the world relative to our population size, because the best male athletes in our country typically become basketball, football, or baseball players. Basketball, football, and baseball players are also the most highly compensated of professional athletes in our country.

Your argument seems to be that even though baseball players are compensated with enormous resources, there are still some baseball players that are worse than average. Of course this is true. This will never not be true. But don't you think the compensation of baseball, football, and basketball players in the US influences the relative athletic skill of the athletes in those sports compared to soccer?

Similarly, if you paid teachers enough so that choosing a career in teaching wasn't a tremendous financial sacrifice relative to choosing a career in engineering or business, wouldn't you get more talented individuals choosing teaching over those other fields?

Freddie said...

Great comment.

I think that there are significant differences between performance pay and a system-wide improvement in teacher compensation. The young up and coming athlete knows to choose to pursue baseball not merely because the highest performing players out earn just about everybody, but because even the marginal-in-relative-context players earn significantly more than the median American income. (Like, many many times more.) And they earn far more than marginal soccer players. In order to make teaching like baseball, you can't just make it more lucrative to be at the top of the profession; you need to make it far more lucrative to make it at the bottom.

A talented, motivated young person might look at a job as a lawyer, where not only do starts get paid many times what star teachers do, but where marginal performers get paid many times what marginal teachers do. When people assess career opportunities, they want to be at the top, but have to consider the possibility that they will end up on the bottom. Even if performance pay increases median teacher compensation, the smart play is to be a lawyer; still higher upside, higher downside.

Captain Bringdown said...


Your analogy makes a decent enough case that we ought to pay teachers more to attract more talent to the teaching profession vis a vis other higher paying professions.

This is, however, a completely different issue than what Freddie is talking about, i.e. that firing sub-par teachers will not necessarily lead to the hiring of better ones.

Alex Waller said...

Isn't the better solution here to build and train robots to be teachers? And I only say that partially tongue-in-cheek.
High-skill-requirement work in this country that society refuses to pay fair wages for is best done by robots.
I know it seems ridiculous to even suggest that a robot could be a good teacher, but then again, as America drives art and literature out of curriculum in favor of more and more math and science (because competing with China in engineer production is all that matters), emotion and empathy are less and less traits a teacher needs.

Matt said...

I think Yglesias' metaphor is a big swing and miss (thank you, I'll be here all night...don't forget to tip the waiters.)

He presents a false set of choices: replace the bad teacher/baseball players with other ones. Beyond the obvious criticisms raised by Freddie that you're not necessarily improving by doing that, its also just wrong to assume thats the only option. Baseball teams have highly paid coaching staffs and trainers to work with marginal players to make them better. If you have a guy with a .600 OPS, then maybe you have him hit the weight rooms in the offseason or go play in the Arizona fall league. If a pitcher is struggling, maybe you teach them how to throw a splitter so their repertoire is a bit more varied.

In baseball, you don't give up on players until it becomes painfully obvious that they won't ever be successful baseball players.

I don't even think that those of us critical of the reform movement are asking for a standard that high. All we're suggesting is that teachers whose results aren't optimal be given a fair opportunity to succeed. Simply getting rid of them is disruptive and not conducive to creating the best professional core of teachers you can have. Dedicate appropriate resources to training teachers and this debate is moot for the most part. Few people on any side of the argument would suggest that the truly bad teachers deserve to keep their jobs. Rather the argument is that most teachers whose performance is sub-optimal are struggling because of a lack of adequate training and resources, not because they're incapable.

Brian Gaerity said...

I agree that firing bad teachers wouldn't bring an influx of GREAT teachers...but I think it would lead to BETTER teachers.

Your baseball analogy leads us astray. It assumes that the equilibrium levels of quality would be the same in two very different systems, competitive and non-competitive. I don't think you've established that baseball would have the same level of overall quality if it used a seniority/job protection approach like teaching, rather than a competitive/performance one. Yes, the constant flow of new players doesn't lead to continuous improvement in play, but it does establish a very high level of overall performance.
That is what reformers are trying to achieve with a performance-based system in teaching. And money shouldn't be the primary motivator for performance (just as it isn't for all professional athletes -- after all, it wasn't so long ago that most pro baseball players got very little money, in many cases less than a skilled trade job).

I just don't understand the resistance to a performance-based system for teaching. I know it's difficult to find good evaluation methods, but, wow, if we didn't do things because they were hard, we wouldn't get very far. Instead of focusing on what's wrong with current approaches, such as peer reviews and value-added, let's focus on what works and improving what doesn't. No evaluation system is going to be perfect. But we can't just throw our hands up and say "sorry, teaching is just too mysterious and complicated and opaque for us to understand well enough to judge performance."

Freddie said...

Serious question: do you really think you can attract better candidates for a job by making that job materially worse?

We have a teacher shortage in this country. People are not kept out of teaching because all the slots are taken. People don't get into teaching because talented people who are willing to go through extra schooling to work go to jobs that are far better compensated.

Brian Gaerity said...

I'm not arguing for lower compensation. But there are other things that districts and schools can offer to attract good teachers, such as good facilities, small class sizes, teacher support systems, opportunities for peer recognition, achievement incentives, great parent support, etc. It's not ALL about the money. Right now, there are few things a teacher can strive for, other than surviving long enough to collect a pension. The key question is what is the right combination of incentives?

As far as teacher shortages, I think we have a distribution problem, not a supply problem. There are plenty of teachers, just not enough who want to work where they are most needed. This is analogous to the global food supply and hunger, or doctors and access to medical care. There are many districts (most districts?) where there is no issue of finding teachers.

I think many (most?) current teachers could be MUCH better teachers, if given different incentives, training and working environments. I think quality candidates would be attracted to teaching as well. But we also have to recognize that some professions are never going to pay as well as others; particularly those in service professions, such as the military. There may be some people who would go into teaching vs. the law if teaching paid as well, but I'm not sure those folks would necessarily be great teachers. There isn't a linear relationship between compensation levels and quality. At some point, compensation is no longer a motivator, and may in fact become a disincentive (see Daniel Pink's "Drive"). The key questions there are: at what level is the issue of money taken off the table (to use Pink's words), and how do we determine what that is?

Anonymous said...

"I think we have a distribution problem, not a supply problem. There are plenty of teachers, just not enough who want to work where they are most needed."

So why is it we never see this complaint regarding investment bankers? Or defense contractors?

And really is all about the money. If bankers were routinely spat upon in public and paid a pitiful many bankers do you think we would be cursed with? Similarly, if teaching was one of the highest paid professions, you would see an increase in supply and higher talent (on average, maybe).

Further, if economic failure was a capital offense, and we had performance based review on Wall Street...just about every investment whiz would have been shot in 2009.

But no....let us waste our time dreaming up ponies and "work atmosphere" incentives to induce teachers to work for next to nothing. Frankly, call me totally not interested in that conversation.

Thank you.


Brian Gaerity said...

If "it really is all about the money," then all teachers must be frustrated would-be hedge fund managers. And all artists must be idiots for pursuing a profession that mostly pays very little. The reality is that many relatively low-paying professions, like military leadership, public service, journalism, non-MD healthcare and NGOs, have always attracted some of the "best and brightest." The nature of the job is what attracts people to professions, not simply the money. Most investment bankers don't want to be teachers, and vice versa.

Here's a question: is $57,000 a year a good starting salary for a teacher? Because that's what our district pays, if you pro-rate a 7.5 hour/day, 189-day work year to a full-time equivalent in the private sector (and that's being generous, because most private-sector salaried positions require more than 40 hours per week). I think that's pretty darn good, considering it includes great health care benefits, job security (after three years), guaranteed pay increases and a very generous pension. Unfortunately, we can't sustain that compensation system without raising property taxes 6-8% each year. Please feel free to move to our district and advocate for those kinds of tax increases to the 70% of residents who don't have school-age kids and/or are on fixed incomes.

And who says teaching has to be a life-long career? Why can't someone work at a business or non-profit for a few years, become a teacher for 5-10 years, then do something else? Part of the reason is that health insurance and retirement are tied too closely to employment. If we could decouple those two benefits (defined-contribution retirement plans are a big step in the right direction), then more people would have the freedom to change jobs as their lives and interests suit them. I would rather have a great teacher for 5 years than a mediocre teacher for 20.

Money is part of the answer to attracting quality teachers, but it is by no means the only answer.

Joel said...

The bad baseball players you called out are actually exceptionally skilled baseball players.

Regarding Lugo, Red Sox fans beg to differ.

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