In the year 2002, no one had heard of “Moneyball” and the idea of how to manage a sports team revolved around the instincts of managers, scouts, and coaches. In 2003 the book Moneyball explained the use of data analytics in the management of the Oakland A’s. Then the world changed.
By 2016 Moneyball is simply the assumed “normal” of how professional sports teams are managed. The use of advanced analytics has even moved out of the professional teams and into the world of fan activities like fantasy sports, with hundreds of websites offering “next generation stats” to give players an advantage over their coworkers and friends.
In just over a decade, data-driven decision-making transformed one of the most iconic parts of American society.
Now it’s your turn.
You are great at what you do: improving the lives of children and families.
For more than five decades, Head Start grantees have been making the world a better place. Millions of Americans live better lives because of Head Start and the efforts of those who work in the programs that it funds.
That is a truly monumental achievement.
Throughout this time, you have weathered changes in the program. Every year there are changes in standards and practices. Periodic revisions from the federal government mean that you are experts at navigating changes in performance standards.
This time is different. Really, different. For five decades, federal standards have been based on compliance: the collection of specific data and the transfer of it into a standard report.
But in the very near future, you are going to have to play Moneyball. You will have to report evidence-based outcomes. This is not just reporting numbers, but also how you got those numbers and how you know the numbers are accurate. You will need to show meaningful relationships and how you found those relationships.
And you have to talk about it in a way that informs your families and makes Washington D.C. happy.
All that as a minimum standard to keep your funding.
You might be ready for the revolution, but you probably aren’t. Training programs in Head Start don’t focus on how to do these things. MSW programs have a class on statistics or methods more often than not, but these are limited and are often one of those classes you get through because you have to. Other graduate programs have more training in these areas, but almost none teach applied data science. At the end of the day, there are relatively few people out there with the kinds of skills needed to do data analytics work and the bandwidth to do it while still doing their other jobs. This is not going to change any time soon.
For fifty years, success has been about compliance and checking the right boxes. Now you have to do that AND provide firm, evidence-based details of how your families have improved. And how you use that information to improve your program over time.
You have a data system (probably ChildPlus), and you have data services vendors who scan forms for you. But these companies are not equipped to provide data science services.
- Your ChildPlus report tells you that you have rated 95% of families as strong on Asset Building
- Given the eligibility requirements of Head Start, how realistic is that?
- What does that mean about your data and how you collect it?
The world is changing. What worked in the past won’t work in the future. A whole new skill set is going to be needed on top of what you already do well. One that the current vendors and support providers don’t provide.
The data science revolution is well entrenched in the private sector. Historically, these skills were concentrated in companies like Uber, Google, and Facebook. New organizations are emerging to bring together data science and program evaluation. These new players smooth the path to the data-focused program management, making the transition easier.
My company, Acorn Evaluation, is one of these. We have worked closely with Neighborhood House Association (NHA) here in San Diego to build better tools for measuring family outcomes, collect more accurate family data, and to demonstrate fidelity to curriculum practices. Partnerships like these are going to become more common as grantees seek to add the necessary skills to play Moneyball in a tight budgetary environment. A partner skilled in both data science and evaluation can help to make the shift to a Moneyball world simpler by providing skills and training for Head Start organizations at less than the cost of adding FTE’s to fulfill the same roles.
The data revolution has arrived in Head Start. Ready or not, it is time to play Moneyball. And it’s easier when you have teammates on the field with you.