Baseball, Education, and Our Future

My favorite place in the world is Fenway Park, where I root for my team, the Boston Red Sox. There are many reasons to love Fenway Park and the Red Sox; my devotion comes from knowing that baseball teaches practical life lessons.

Baseball is not a boring game: it’s subtle, like life. It is a truly American game that can tie one generation to the next. As the eminent historian Jacques Barzun wrote: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America, had better learn baseball.” It’s about history, diversity, math, and statistics. While the look of both schools and baseball fields seem to have remained mostly unchanged over the last fifty years, the fact is that they have both changed in less obvious ways.

Baseball’s many lessons teach both broad life lessons and ones more specific to other topics, including education. My friend Steve Ealy publishes an annual “What Price per Victory Survey” for baseball fans, based on data provided by CBS Sports. In 2008, the team with the highest payroll expenditure in Major League Baseball was the New York Yankees ($209,081,579), fourth was the Boston Red Sox ($133,440,037) and twenty-ninth, the Tampa Bay Rays ($29,836,500). That 84, meaning the Yankees paid $37,440,015 for each five additional wins. Tampa Bay, with the second-lowest payroll in baseball, won the American League Championship Series and made it to the World Series (where they ultimately lost to the Phillies), proving that money alone does not guarantee a winning performance.

The same can be said for education. When John Silber was running for governor of Massachusetts, he would often remark that if you want a mediocre education, you could go to Chelsea and pay half the price to get the same education you could get in Boston. At that time, Chelsea and Boston were recognized as peers at the lowest category of student performance measurement in the Commonwealth.

Why is more money not necessarily better in baseball or education? The answer is one of innovation—a matter of looking at the same statistics and evidence in a new way. For our students to be truly competitive in the 21st century, traditional K-12 education needs more competition and an open environment for entrepreneurs to address serious policy issues, including student performance, merit pay, school choice, and teacher tenure. Some of the best remedies for education are available through competition in the marketplace;more money does not necessarily improve performance.

Today, the political climate is embracing change, not just in education. The Obama administration is braced to persuade teachers to join those seeking greater accountability. It is the right time and opportunity to rally teachers and unions to support performance pay. Improving education is at the forefront of improving our economy. We need many incentives (including financial) for improved performance; likewise, for those who do not perform, we should take a cue from baseball and either sign for less money or be willing to enhance skills by transferring to the education equivalent of the instructional level of the minor leagues.

Through the efforts of education entrepreneurs and others, dramatic changes have taken place in American education over the past twenty-five years. Where will the next wave of educational entrepreneurship take us? Revised funding models and the role of government, the advent of learning via social networking (Web 2.0 and beyond), and the continued importance of anywhere anytime, lifelong learning in a global, knowledge economy will all shape its form.

Few would have imagined that in late 2008 and 2009 the U.S. government would become the lender of last resort to a number of “too large to fail” institutions to keep our economies from collapsing. If any institution in the United States is “too large to fail,” it is the education system. It is time to give our teaching professionals the same support we give those in the financial and automotive sectors. Yet, the economic credit and global market crisis has redefined the role of government across a range of industries.

In the current climate, the role of government in education has been most visible as it has essentially “doubled down” its investment in education, openly calling for entrepreneurial innovation and capital investment. Because of this, it seems likely that venture capitalists will return in droves. With government as a strong advocate and the opportunities abundant, venture investing will flourish once again. This is an important and encouraging outcome, as venture capitalists use innovation as the basis for their decision making.

Another call for innovation was emphasized in the 2006 Tough Choices or Tough Times report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. This report clearly shows that high-skill, high-wage jobs represent America’s economic future, and it calls for a complete overhaul of U.S. education by 2021. These are good times for education entrepreneurs. The government, venture capitalists, and philanthropists are focused on social entrepreneurship and education as major priorities.

We are fortunate that during these challenging times, we are blessed with Internet technologies that did not exist ten years ago. Between the social learning needs and willing investors, the opportunities and capital are abundant for entrepreneurs.

Education is a bipartisan issue—we all care equally and deeply about the sad state of our schools. The time is ripe for a new administration to tear down those barriers and convince our teachers’ unions that performance and merit pay are long overdue. We have attacked our outmoded automobile industry by facing down deep-rooted challenges from labor and management. We are doing the same with regard to the environment, healthcare, and energy. Why not seize this opportunity for change in education? The past twenty-five years in the education industry reveal much about who we are as a nation:

  • We are an aspiring nation–entrepreneurs have created after-school enterprises that support working families and their children by combining childcare, tutoring, and coaching to help advance and support their future.
  • We are a caring and nurturing nation—entrepreneurs found opportunities to assist those at risk with learning disabilities and increasing challenges such as autism.
  • We are an innovative nation—entrepreneurs used the Internet to deliver courses to adult and young learners and to redefine what it meant to be a student at any time and place.
  • We are a competitive nation—charter schools and organizations such as Teach for America help all of us improve ourselves by raising the bar of success.

Like most people who were born and bred in northern New England—that is, Red Sox Nation—I understood what my father meant when he would say, “Good luck to you and the Red Sox.” The Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918, when my dad was 10. They always came close . . . but consistently let us down. When he would tell me “Good luck to you and the Red Sox”—usually in response to some crazy idea I might have—it was his way of saying that he didn’t see it happening, but he wanted to motivate and not discourage me. Like others who became Red Sox fans at a young age, I consequently became a strong advocate for the underdog and entrepreneurship.

“Good luck to you and the Red Sox” has been my motivating mantra in professional and personal life. I was determined to succeed at whatever I set my mind to do . . . and the Red Sox were going to win the World Series one day. This ideal drove my persistence and perseverance—key attributes for education entrepreneurs. For their part, after an eighty-six year drought, the Red Sox won the first of their two World Series in three years in 2004.

Somehow, somewhere, we have lost our competitive edge in education. But it doesn’t have to be “Good luck to you, the U.S. education system, and the Red Sox.” The past twenty-five years, coupled with the optimism and thirst for change in this era, have shown that these original education entrepreneurs were on target and that the notion that private ventures for the public good could provide the foundation piece that we could continue to build upon for generations to come. As a nation now truly at risk, the incentives and opportunities are aligned. The positive response of social entrepreneurs in education will be heard loud and clear.