America's education system needs a Bill James, and a Billy Beane. Together, James and Beane - the focus of Michael Lewis's recent bestseller Moneyball - revolutionized Major League Baseball by demonstrating how maximizing efficiency can leverage limited resources to create a successful outcome.
Bill James, author of the comprehensive Historical Baseball Abstract, spent three decades challenging the national pastime's conventional wisdom, applying rigorous statistical analysis to determine the traits most associated with a player's true value to his team. James's findings didn't square with most baseball experts' opinion, and his research was ignored for years.
Until, that is, Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane embraced James's philosophy, and put it into practice. Since the A's have one of the leagues lowest payrolls, Beane used James's findings to maximize his team's efficiency, focusing on players with the traits James found most important for winning ballgames, rather than those with flashy statistics. The strategy worked: Over the past five years, Beane's A's have been near the top of the league's standings despite being outspent by nearly all their competitors.
American education could use a healthy dose of Bill James's rigorous analysis and Billy Beane's courage. For years, discussions about improving America's schools have focused on adding resources. Politicians promise to fix our schools the same way the New York Mets or Texas Rangers try to improve their franchises: spending more money, rather than focusing on efficiency. And the public schools, like the Mets and Rangers, have little to show for their extravagant spending.
According to the Department of Education, inflation-adjusted education spending per pupil grew by 92 percent between 1972 and 2002, now totaling more than $9,300 per child. Yet there's been no evidence of significant academic improvement. Test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been flat for three decades and graduation rates have slipped slightly from 75.6 percent to 72.5 percent. Little research supports the contention that more education spending improves outcomes.
Unfortunately, taxpayers can no longer afford Yankee-sized budgets. Most state governments currently face budget deficits. According to the National Governor's Association, total state spending is expected to remain flat in the year ahead. That should leave policymakers, much like the A's GM Beane, desperately searching for ways to maximize the resources they've got.
Who, then, is the Bill James of education policy? A good candidate is Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute. For years, Greene has used statistical analysis to uncover creative solutions to improve the performance of America's schools. Much like James, Greene's findings challenge conventional wisdom.
For example, in 2001, Greene concluded that a state's academic achievement was positively correlated with how much freedom parents have to choose their child's school. The bottom line: More school choice begets better test scores. As Greene observed: "Where families have more options in the education of their children, the average student tends to demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement." Greene has also found that school-choice programs in Milwaukee, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Florida have significantly increased student performance with less financial burden on taxpayers.
But who has the courage to be the education system's Billy Beane, putting into practice Greene's unconventional findings?
So far, Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been most willing to introduce competition into his state's school system. Since 1999, Governor Bush has signed three major school-choice laws: vouchers for students in failing schools, a corporate-scholarship tax credit, and the McKay scholarship program for special-education students.
Another leading candidate is Colorado Governor Bill Owens. Last year, Gov. Owens approved the nation's newest school-voucher program. The program is currently stalled due to a Denver District Court's injunction, but that hasn't stopped Owens from promoting competition in education. He embraced Rep. Nancy Spence's effort to provide school choice to Colorado's special-education students during his recent State of the State Address.
Governors Bush and Owens aren't alone. Already this year, three governors have proposed school-choice legislation. Embattled Connecticut Governor John Rowland recently proposed a voucher program, as did New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford will soon outline a universal tax-credit proposal. With Congress's recent passage of a school voucher-program for the nation's capital, it's likely more politicians will begin to stand up for school choice.
As for Greene, like Bill James, he plans to continue challenging conventional wisdom. The data that Greene and his associates generate about what really improves education provide the ammunition for these bold governors to adopt meaningful and cost-effective reforms.
Following this path could ease pressure on state budgets while providing better education for students. For American children, that's better than the hometown team winning the World Series.