When a film as compelling as the box-office hit Moneyball — and the Michael Lewis book on the work of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane upon which it is based — comes along, it can be too easy for education reporters and thinkers to scour for comparisons to the battle over the reform of American public education, and come up with a series of oversimplifications. Such is the case of This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo, who proclaims that the aftermath of the book offers these lessons for reformers pushing for more and better use of data such as Value-Added: That while the use of the statistical concept called Sabermetrics — which tosses out old school measures of baseball success for a series of new data points (including a focus on on-base percentage) — have not helped teams yield the successes they wanted; that big-money clubs continue to dominate sports regardless of data; and, in essence, that school reformers should expect the same results.

Russo is correct that there are lessons reformers and traditionalists can glean from Moneyball. But not the ones he claims. For one, sports isn’t exactly like education. Certainly, Major League Baseball is a monopoly of sorts. But it is ultimately a part of the competitive entertainment and sports sector. Baseball teams such as the Athletics and the Yankees compete against one another for World Series titles, talent, and revenues — and, at the same time, must battle for market share and fan dollars against big-league football, basketball and hockey teams in their respective local and regional markets. Teams are use data in the same way companies such as Google and Microsoft do so in their competition in the search and cellphone operating system markets: To gain an advantage over one another in scouring for talent and gaining market (or league) supremacy. They hardly use it to make players better at their sport; the talent does that hard work for themselves.

School districts, on the other hand, don’t really compete against one another; even in cities such as Indianapolis and Houston that are home to numerous school districts, there are marginal differences in salary scales, benefits and work conditions. Forget the U.S. Department of Education’s report on teacher salaries, which doesn’t include data on the fringe benefits that actually account for the bulk of teacher compensation. The combination of seniority- and degree-based pay scales, near-lifetime employment rights, and seniority-based privileges (including the ability to transfer into any school within a district and bump a less-senior instructor) means that few teachers will move across districts; when teachers leave, they usually leave education for good. Only 7 percent of newly-hired public school teachers who were earning less than $40,000 in 2008–09 remained teachers a year later, according to the U.S. Department of Education, while only four percent of new hires teachers earning $40,000 or more in that same period left for greener pastures. The fact that there is so little information on the performance of individual teachers — thanks to desultory performance evaluations and the opposition from teachers’ unions to the use of Value-Added student achievement data in assessing teacher performance — also makes the talent market far less than robust.

The other thing is that money isn’t nearly the factor in the success of Major League franchises as Russo may think. Consider the success of the Florida Marlins, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Atlanta Braves, and the Tampa Bay Rays, all of whom whose revenues are at least $200 million less than that of the Yankee and $72 million less than that of the Red Sox. Small- and middle-market franchises have won eight of the last 20 World Series titles since 1991, and appeared in 15 of those title games in that period; of the ten largest franchises in the league according to annual valuation of sports clubs conducted by my former Forbes‘ colleague, Kurt Badenhausen, just six of them have won titles in 20 seasons — and only the Red Sox and the ever-loathsome Yankees have won more than one in that period.

But there are some things that school reformers can be gleaned from the use of data in major league baseball. Those lessons lie in the importance of leadership in embracing data in sophisticated ways, the critical need for strong leadership in order to achieve success in the first place, and the realization that there is no one solution for solving the nation’s education crisis.

The success of the Athletics, along with the emergence of a younger generation of baseball executives who embrace the use of data, led to other teams adapting sabermetrics to at least some of their operations. The first to do so was the Red Sox, which hired Beane acolyte Theo Epstein in 2002 to revive its then-floundering fortunes. The New York Yankees would follow suit for its own reloading effort, with General Manager Brian Cashman hiring his own crew of Sabermetricians, and the St. Louis Cardinals. As it turned out, it worked well for all three teams as they won several World Series titles during the last decade; Boston, in particular, thrived under sabermetrics with Epstein’s clubs winning two World Series titles with a crew that consisted of big-names (Manny Ramirez) and cast-offs. Thanks to Sabermetrics, the Yankees and the Red Sox could take their deep pockets and spend smartly on talent, acquiring the balance of stars, rising talent, and workaday players who are critical to the success of teams.

But not every team that used Sabermetrics fared well. Back in 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays brought in a Beane understudy, J.P. Ricciardi, to turn around a franchise that had been one of the most-successful during the 1980s and 1990s. Eight years later, Ricciardi left the club having succeeded little. The reluctance of the Blue Jays’ owner, Canadian cable giant Rogers Communications, to open up its coffers to acquire top talent, along with Ricciardi’s own poor decisions on those rare occasions he did get to purchase talent (including the ill-fated signing of slumping slugger Frank Thomas) overcame smart moves made by the club using Sabermetrics such as the development of Roy Halliday and Shawn Camp).

Paul DePodesta did succeed during his tenures developing players for the San Diego Padres; he did even better as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where his trade of expensive flukes such as Paul LoDuca led to the team reaching the playoffs in 2004. But a year later, he was fired by temperamental owner Frank McCourt, who was unhappy with DePodesta’s search for a replacement for fired manager Paul Tracy; DePodesta couldn’t fix the dysfunction that had plagued ‘Dem Bums since the last days of Tommy Lasorda’s tenure as team manager, nor, as it turned out, could save the franchise from McCourt’s financial and managerial fecklessness.

As for Oakland? After seven straight seasons of playoff appearances, the franchise has missed the playoffs for five straight years. While some want to say that the Athletics’ problems are reflective of the problems faced by all small-market clubs, the fact  that other teams have adopted Sabermetrics means that Beane has lost the advantages he once had in scouring for talent. But Beane has also struggled to change his game up. While he is now scouting high school players in order to develop the Athletics’ pipeline of talent and has focused on data related to the defensive skills of potential talent, he hasn’t exploited other opportunities to field strong teams with top hitters and base runners. Some of the trades he has also pulled off as of late have also been flops. The results are clear: Although the Athletics led the league in 2010 in defensive efficiency — including fewest runs allowed — the team still remained a mess. And this year’s club, a cellar-dweller, is no better.

The lesson of Moneyball for school reformers and education traditionalists isn’t that data doesn’t matter. As seen in the success of the Red Sox (until late) and the Yankees, both of which are adherents of Sabermetrics, such an argument cannot be made with a straight face. Nor can anyone simply say that money doesn’t matter either. What is clear is this: When you use data in a sophisticated way to shape instruction, curricula and the ability of families to be lead decision-makers in education, this allows for money to be spent more-wisely. As seen in the case of Oakland, using data in sophisticated ways to identify talent and structure work can yield some success — and when used by a big-market franchise, can lead to even greater success. One can say with confidence that if education data was used more-effectively in evaluating teacher performance, few laggard teachers would remain on the job, and more schools would become cultures of genius in which the potential of all students are nurtured.

At the same time, it is important to have strong leaders who not only know how to use data effectively and in innovative ways, but also have the other talents needed to lead schools and districts. Certainly principals should use value-added data in order to better-structure instruction; as Dropout Nation noted earlier this year, one can imagine a principal creating collaborative teaching structures in which teachers strong in reading can handle such instruction for an entire fifth-grade group, while peers talented in math teaching can handle those activities. But it is also important for principals to have strong decision-making skill, political savvy, entrepreneurial drive, strategic thinking ability, and talent for motivating staffers to success found among successful managers and leaders in other fields. This goes double for superintendents at the district level, who must tackle dysfunctional cultures in order to turn around failing and mediocre districts.

Ultimately, it means that we must overhaul how we recruit and train principals to serve in schools; since teachers will still account for many of the folks coming into school leadership, it also means overhauling how we recruit and train aspiring teachers in the first place. And it also means giving principals the ability to make tough decisions in the first place. This means moving hiring and firing decisions from central offices to principal’s offices, developing rigorous teacher evaluation systems  that principals can use to keep and reward teachers successful in improving student achievement (and weed out those who cannot), and putting an end to tenure, which has helped to ensure that laggard instructors remain in place to foster systemic dysfunction. It is crazy to ask principals to be instructional and managerial leaders when the structure of school decision-making render such work to be a near-impossibility.

And ultimately, there is no silver bullet for the nation’s education crisis. It will take a myriad of solutions — including better and more sophisticated use of data — in order to improve the quality of instruction, curricula and leadership in order to help all of our children write their own stories. There is no need to denigrate one tool or particular focus, something that a few reformers themselves (including Rick Hess) must keep in mind. As the Rays remind us in its successful push into this year’s playoffs can attest, school reformers will need all kinds of solutions and players in order to build schools fit for our kids.