Policy Hub

Federal / Invest in What Works Policy Series

Moneyball for Education: Using Data, Evidence and Evaluation to Improve Federal Education Policy

By Frederick M. Hess and Bethany Little –

More than a decade ago, Michael Lewis penned the influential book Moneyball. An examination of how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane used data to make his franchise competitive with wealthier baseball teams, the book struck a chord. Beane’s strategy of making decisions based on data had a powerful and positive impact on the performance of the Oakland A’s, and people quickly saw that this practice could and should be more widely applied.

Most policymakers support the idea of using good data and evidence to make federal spending smarter— especially when it comes to investments in America’s children. The trick is determining just what good data and smarter spending actually mean, and to make sure people use them and don’t just talk about them. That is where so many pleasant points of abstract agreement can break down in practice.

This paper suggests ways to revamp federal education policies and programs to help lawmakers spend public funds more effectively and efficiently to improve student outcomes. The aim is to identify a set of proposals that have some bipartisan appeal and can make a practical difference. This effort was informed by thinking from a select group of seasoned experts from the left and right who have much experience with federal education policy. Given strong-principled disagreements about the nature of the federal role in education, three caveats are vital. 

First, this exercise assumes that the recommendations will be revenue neutral. This is not meant to suggest that these recommendations do not carry a cost, but rather that where there is a cost, we assume that the requisite funds would be found within the existing education budget by shifting funds as necessary. Thus, the focus is on how money is spent, not whether federal spending should be increased or decreased. While we have our own biases as to how much Uncle Sam should spend, we agree that—whatever the level of spending—it is possible and necessary to spend existing funds more effectively, and it is possible and necessary to find common ground on this count.

Second, this exercise does not assume that the federal government should dictate to states or localities exactly how to spend their funds. Some advocates think it beneficial for the US Department of Education to play an assertive role in determining how states, schools, and colleges educate students. That is a discussion for other venues. Here, our premise is that the federal government has a key role to play in promoting the use of data, evidence, and evaluation in education because these are, in important ways, classic public goods.

These are activities for which it can be difficult for an individual school, system, or state to marshal substantial resources, and that yield benefits that flow to all takers—whether they helped foot the bill or not. These kinds of activities are consistent with a limited federal role and the distinctive responsibilities of the federal government. The feds can also enable and support state officials and local educators to make informed decisions about effective programs and practices. This paper explores some ways the federal government can and should apply “moneyball” principles to its own decision making to make federal programs more effective and efficient.

Third, moneyball strategies are not imagined to suggest that we should only value what can currently be measured, or paint everything as either “working” or “not working.” Context and implementation often belie that simple construction. It does, however, mean that we should

  • Collect better, more useful data and build evidence about how well programs and policies work;
  • Use evidence to improve practice and inform pol- icies; and
  • Shift funds toward those things that deliver more promising results.

Even with these caveats, however, promoting more use of data, evidence, and evaluation to do better for students is too important to pass up. Moneyball could also present a bipartisan pathway forward at a time when much of education policy seems to be increasingly stuck in fruitless debate.