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Teachers and Coaches: An NBA Analogy

March 31, 2010

Controversy erupted recently in the world of educational reform when a school decided to fire all of its teachers due to the low academic performance of their students. The Central Falls High School firings laid direct blame on the teachers for perpetrating a culture of underachievement. Many nouveaux ed-reformers applauded this action, calling it bold and brave, with even the President stating “if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show any sign of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability…and that’s what happened in Rhode Island.”  In other words, I approve and support this action.

Firing entire faculties may or may not be a step forward in improving educational communities. But it does bring a key issue to mind: to what extent are teachers responsible for their students’ accomplishments? If teachers refuse to accept 100% of the responsibility, is it because they are against our nation’s capitalistic values of work and competition, and want lifetime employment without ever bearing the blame for the faulty products they are alleged to produce? This avenue of thought led me to think about other professions and situations where leaders or mentors were judged by the performance of their charges, and Phil Jackson immediately came to mind.

Following the logic of the ed reformers, Phil Jackson is 100%, solely responsible for the phenomenal accomplishments of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Jackson provided exquisite coaching techniques, drive and dedication, and opened himself up to evaluations and at will employment thus motivating himself to improve. These circumstances produced the prodigies known as Bryant and Jordan, and indeed, any basketball phenomenon since the inception of the game.

Factors that did NOT contribute to the success of these basketball wonders were:

1. Personal challenges
2. Socioeconomics
3. Practice time
4. Parental support
5. A personal desire for advancement

Phil Jackson, according to the Teachers Are to Blame logic, can take ANY player from ANY background with little to no natural ability, and turn them into a champion. And he can do this alone in his gym, with billion of dollars of cuts to his profession, no choice as to who is selected to play on his team, and all while being assailed from all fronts as pathetic, if he dares complain about the circumstances.

Sound ridiculous? This is what the ed reform debate has come to. Finding the one person, the one profession, the one program that is responsible for the struggles in education takes attention away to the one inescapable fact of success: without hard work there will be no achievement. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, continuing with our NBA analogy, wrote in his autobiography that after his first championship, he increased the amount of his practice time to continue refining his technique. Imagine that! A world champion realized that to maintain or improve his performance he needed to work harder and longer than ever before.

What is the take away from this analogy? The reality is that a teacher’s impact only goes so far. And this is incredibly frustrating to any hardworking, dedicated teacher. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard teachers say they want to adopt a student, or wish they could take them home and feed them, clean them up, and pay them attention. As much as we would like to make up for everything that is missing in our students’ lives (and most of us attempt to do so, in spite of the enormity of the reality), we cannot compensate 100% for who walks into our classroom and their lack of support systems. In spite of forces working against teachers (under-funding of education, societal attitudes, parental resistance to advice), we manage to bring children to the point where they can play on the team. They learn the game, they become good sports, and they enjoy the experience. Imagine what we could accomplish if we reversed the roles of teachers and NBA stars….having the kind of funding the NBA generates, paying teachers, counselors and librarians athlete salaries, and having mobs of fans and parents cheering us on like they do at the Lakers game. Maybe then a strategy like mass firings would make more sense, because there would be fewer impediments and more support, even passion for learning. Until that time, however, it is a wasted experiment, one that delays the time that will have to come soon, where all Americans must decide that education is crucial to our nation’s survival and recovery and that we must all work hard, in our own way, to ensure its success.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2010 8:10 pm

    I like this analogy–I wish more people would consider this.

    Ultimately the difference is commerce. In the NBA, there is money to be made. No matter how you twist it, compulsory education will never be a for-profit endeavor…and when people hold up the greater success of some private schools as a model of how public schools should be, they are ignoring the obvious economic factor: when people have to write a check, they become literally invested in the success of education, just as those who pay Phil Jackson’s salary were invested in the success of his team and therefore made sure he got the best raw material to work with, not clumsy old me and my neighbor Mike for whom the 5-foot marker on the pool denoted the “deep end.” Jackson would never end up with Mike and me…our raw material was more than a little too raw, so we ended up both cut from the 8th grade team. No money was to be made off us, so no money was invested in courting us for the NBA. Since no money is to be made off public education, too little gets invested in cultivating it to be a success.

    • April 4, 2010 10:57 am

      Mark, certainly the “what’s in it for me” thought process is pervasive in today’s society, regarding education. And when story after story in the media focuses on low-performing schools, it reinforces that education is not something in which to invest. There is no immediate money to be made.

      But don’t we all pay for it sooner or later? As we rapidly fall from being the dominant superpower in this world, a return to a true true commitment to education might reverse the course.

      A teacher at my school had a different way of looking at my analogy. He compared teachers to a three section pie chart. For a student to have any success, he needs two out of the three participants to be active, either teacher/student, teacher/parent, or even student/parent. But if its just the teacher, or just the student, or just the parent, success will be hard to come by.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Steven permalink
    April 5, 2010 12:10 pm

    Imagine also that the most accomplished basketball players have the fewest # of children, and, vice versa. The lesser/least accomplished bb players have the most children thereby flooding the gyms of America with a pre-determined negative mindset of success.

    And what about those kids who happen to be quite talented in football, golf or bowling? If basketball excellence is the standard du-jour set by bureaucrats, they will be labelled as low-performing, FBB, or special ed.

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