There is a statistic used to evaluate baseball players called WAR- wins above replacement. The statistic is based on the theory that everything a baseball player does on the field contributes in some way to helping or hurting his team’s chances of winning, and each player’s contributions over the year can be added up to determine how much he helps his team overall. A key point is that the “baseline” should not be zero contribution, because that would be the equivalent of playing a man down. Instead, the statistic introduces the idea of the “replacement level player”- basically, a player (perhaps in the minor leagues) who would be the likely alternative.
We can apply a similar idea to education. Have you ever noticed how “everything works” when it comes to education? That is, how studies show that kids learn with just about every new intervention, new curriculum, or new software tool? But in education, just like in baseball, the reference point should not be “zero” since even if we didn’t use the latest and greatest methods, students would still learn something.
In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov makes this same basic point. He argues that reading books, while probably not the most effective method of learning, is nonetheless relatively effective. Adults learn significant amounts of new information just from reading. Individual reading is then a potential “replacement level” reference point for any classroom activity. If the students aren’t learning more than they would by reading, the learning activity probably isn’t worthwhile.
Another example of this is John Hattie’s reference points for comparing educational interventions from his book Visible Learning. He compares the effect sizes of educational interventions with the established effect size of an average year’s academic growth (0.2), and the average effect size of classroom interventions in general (0.4). His conclusion is that if an intervention doesn’t increase student achievement with at least an effect size of 0.4, then it may not be worth implementing, because there are other interventions that could probably be implemented which would achieve greater results. Grant Wiggins has a nice post about Hattie’s research on his blog.
Whether or not you agree with these particular benchmarks, you probably have your own sense of what “replacement level” in education should be. The more consistently we require what we do to clear this hurdle, the more effective we’ll be as educators.