Data-Driven Decision Making . . . and Soccer?

Assessment, Learning

Great timing.
A week after I wrote about what the World Cup can teach us about school reform, the New York Times published an article about the growing push for more detailed data in the relatively data-free world of professional soccer.
I am not, for what it’s worth, against the use of more sophisticated data in making decisions about how to improve the learning conditions for kids (or, for that matter, how to make better decisions on the soccer pitch). Who would be? In fact, I’ve written in the past about how a balanced scorecard in schools would help educators do their jobs more effectively.
That being said, I am very much against the glorification of data as a way to make extremely subjective, non-linear things — like learning how to use one’s mind well, or watching a collective burst of creativity and synchronicity that leads to a beautiful soccer goooooooaaaaaaal — into extremely objective, linear things for which we can appropriately plan and script out a desired, predictable response.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that this new push for soccer data is reported the same week as an announcement in my home city that Chancellor Michelle Rhee intends to significantly expand the use of standardized tests so that “every D.C. student from kindergarten through high school is regularly assessed to measure academic progress and the effectiveness of teachers.” What’s afoot in both instances is, on one hand, the (appropriate) desire to take human ingenuity and apply it to situations that in the past have lacked specificity, and, on the other, the (inappropriate) effort to make everything quantifiable, resulting in an overreliance on that which can be measured — at the expense of everything else.
Notably, the push for soccer data seems far more measured than what I see in education. According to Mark Brunkhart, the president of a company that provides soccer data for a fee to clubs and news organizations, he and his staff do not blindly evangelize statistics. Every month or two, he says, he gets a call from a professor or graduate student who is a rabid soccer fan and just finished Moneyball, the book that brought sabermetrics into the mainstream in 2003. (I wrote about Moneyball and its potentially positive implications for school reform in a 2009 column titled “What Would Theo Do?”)
“Every single one comes with the idea that they’re going to solve soccer with the ‘Moneyball’ approach,” Brunkhart said, “and I try to talk them all down.” Similarly, the president of the Society for American Baseball Research pointed to Miroslav Klose’s second goal in Germany’s 4-0 victory against Argentina in the World Cup quarterfinals as an example of how statistics seem to overlook the nuance and elegance of soccer. “A series of three or four absolutely beautiful passes — how do you capture that?” he said. “It’s just the nature of the game.”
Would that I were seeing similar restraint among our education leaders. As longtime educator Ted Sizer once said, “Inspiration, hunger: these are the qualities that drive good schools. The best we educational planners can do is to create the most likely conditions for them to flourish, and then get out of their way.”