Could the minor leagues fix The Achievement Plateau?
What baseball might teach us about education: part 1/x.
A few years ago, my men’s league baseball team found ourselves in the playoffs — a grand feat in a league of eight teams. The game was scheduled for a weekend in which, unfortunately, many of our regular players had other obligations. And we ended up playing the game with just eight players. We left a big gap in the outfield and still managed to hang on for a few innings before the other team blew the game open. We ended up losing.
Playing any game shorthanded isn’t easy: in soccer (football?), when a player receives a red card and gets “sent off” — ejected from the game — his or her team has low chance of winning.
Why, then, do we play shorthanded in education all the time?
In January of 2019, my school had 82 staff absences for the month. We got just 42 of those absences filled. One day last March, as the pandemic began taking over, we had 15 absences and just 5 subs. This month — May of 2021 — our fill rate for roles requiring a substitute is still just 59%. We are playing shorthanded almost every day.
What does playing shorthanded look like in a school? Instead of large gaps in the outfield or a missing midfielder, other teachers in the building need to relinquish their preparation periods or lunch and “cover” the class to ensure students are supervised and some learning occurs — that they at least have a chance at winning.
Around 6.30 most mornings I check our absence system — we call it AESOP (but it’s not a fable) — and see which teachers are out. I email that list to my staff, and my teacher-leader works on a coverage schedule. It’s one of the more stressful parts of the school day, knowing that the students in those classes will at best get subpar learning and at worst exhibit behaviors proportional to the lack of structure their day will have.
So how could the minor leagues fix this? In Major League Baseball, each team has their top squad — their active roster of 26 players that are dressed and ready to play in every game. And each team also has a 40-man roster, a group of players who play regularly in the minor leagues, and who are ready to be added to the active roster to fill in for an injured player.
Presumably those minor league players aren’t as polished as their Major League peers, but since they also play regularly, they arrive with a baseline level of quality. Most importantly, the minor leagues serve as a development center for Major League baseball, allowing players regular reps to refine their hitting, fielding, pitching, base-running, and bat flips.
In public education, we might mirror this structure — having teachers simultaneously refining their craft and also ready to fill-in for a sick colleague. One way would be to establish stronger relationships with colleges of education and other teacher preparation programs. Similar to minor league baseball players, developing teachers would be paid to teach full-time (hopefully better than minor leaguers, though) under the guidance of mentor teachers and coaches — honing their craft while simultaneously being ready for “the call-up” to fill in for an “injured” major league teacher.
To be sure, we do this to a limited extent. This year, for example, the school district smartly worked with its substitute provider, Kelly Educational Staffing, to provide a dedicated building substitute to each school. Our building sub — who is awesome — is working towards a teaching degree while getting daily reps at classroom management and instructional strategies. More importantly, she already knows our students, school culture and systems, so she’s able to more seamlessly step into a sub role than, say, someone who’s never met our students or staff. We also have a “resident teacher,” who’s attaining her teaching certificate, working in our middle school alongside a mentor teacher. On the few times the mentor teacher needed to be absent, the resident teacher has been able to seamlessly teach the class for the day.
But maintaining minor leagues is costly, even for a professional sports league that raked in over $10 billion in revenues in 2019, it’s last full season. That’s partly why MLB has begun eliminating minor league teams in some smaller markets. So how could school districts do it?
That’s where it gets complex. One straightforward approach would be to expand teacher residency programs, allowing developing teachers work for a reduced salary in exchange for earning their certification. But given the amount of absences that we need to fill on a daily basis, that might still be costly (though paying for random subs isn’t cheap either). The other approach would be to tackle the root issue: reducing teacher absenteeism. But that’s a big challenge that we’ll explore in a later post.
Whatever we do, we need to help public schools play shorthanded less often. Just like in baseball and soccer, our chances of winning for students decreases dramatically each time we do.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.