Not the NFL

Education should emulate football teams’ zeal to improve, says American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten in her joint interview with Bill Gates in Newsweek.

Football teams . . . look at the tape after every game. Sometimes they do it during the game. They’re constantly deconstructing what is working and what isn’t working. And they’re jettisoning what isn’t working and building up on what is working, and doing it in a teamlike approach.

The NFL is ruthlessly meritocratic, responds Eduwonk. Performance is everything.

Four NFL coaches have already been fired this year, fairly or not, and you didn’t hear a lot from them about how their players were the problem. 

. . . As to the players, it’s hard to find an institution more at odds with how schools are generally operated than the NFL – and the players are unionized.  The union rules cover basic protections but don’t guarantee players more than minimum salaries.  If, for instance, the NFL operated the way school districts generally do it would have been difficult for Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan to bench quarterback Donovan McNabb as he did a few weeks ago.  And, even if he succeeded, McNabb presumably could have “forced transfered” his way into another offense somewhere where he had more seniority than the existing quarterback.

NFL pay is based on performance: Stars make much more than journeymen players.

About Joanne


  1. A section of Tipping Point describes the meticulous process by which they design episodes of Sesame Street — testing them in front of children and tweaking and scrapping and trying to figure out how best to have the words run across the screen so the childrens’ eyes track properly, etc. Imagine if teachers were given such tools.

  2. LS-
    More importantly, imagine if teachers were given the time to effectively plan, let alone fancy tools.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Imagine if every teacher had dreamed of being a teacher their entire life, had done nothing but work at being a good teacher from the day they could walk, and spent their entire educational experience in a similarly ruthlessly meritocratic system designed to weed out the sick and weak…

    Imagine if every school — 59 million children — was taught solely by the best 1700 teachers in the country…

    Imagine if the medium in which teachers worked was as inertly responsive as pigskin and grass…

    Imagine if everyone’s idea of what a school should be accomplishing was as simple as having the largest number on the scoreboard at the end of the year…

    Imagine if schools received funding based on their results, and the “fans” (the students, I suppose, in this analogy) could go to another game if they wanted…

    Imagine if only 50% of the teachers ever started the school year teaching, with the rest on the bench…

    Weingarten and Gates are either being facile, basking in their own rah-rah cleverness, or they are advocating the following (all of which, I should add, I have vocally supported for years now):

    1) Vouchers. (I suppose if the analogy holds, the locality could provide funding and tax breaks for the campus, in hopes of reaping an educational benefit from a particularly good team of teachers.)

    2) Term contracts for teachers, with the ability to “bench” a teacher if things aren’t going well.

    3) Enough funding through the vouchers to attract enough applicants to be able to weed out at least 60% of aspiring teachers. This would probably involve essentially doubling salaries.

    4) An immersive and team-oriented model of teaching where people work and train together. In-service days don’t cut it: practice on the weekend; practice after school; practice all summer.

    The hardest part of using a sports model, though, is that one has to accept that there would be “minor leagues” of teaching: communities who would have to settle for being taught by second-stringers. The best teachers will want to work with the best teachers.

    If I can continue to mix sports metaphors, every such system has its Yankees, and every system has its Cleveland Indians.

  4. Should the schools be able to run a combine and tell kids they don’t make the team? After about tenth grade, that’s the norm anywhere else in the world.

  5. The other thing about sports teams is that they are autonomous and are free to make quick decisions that can make or break a season. Not at all true for your typical school district – something that is antithetical to a national curriculum that Randi also endorses.

  6. bill eccleston says:

    Lopez, you think too much, a fatal attribute in a team-sport athlete. You are never going to improve education if your reactions are so slow. Weingarten’s description of the teaching paradigm coaches have been using for the past century at every level of the game is an apt indictment of the dopey paradigms teachers have been force-fed in ed schools. “Guide on the Side,” for instance,; how many coaches have been effective with that one? How about “Child Centered Football” or “Hockey Work Shop”? If there are any ed journalists among our readers here, why don’t you try this—identify the top five coaches in your area, only the very best. Sit them down as a panel and ask them two questions: First, what are the real elements of effective teaching practice?; Second, how can we best organize schools to deliver it? I guarantee, you will learn something about teaching. Education is too important a business to be left to the “Eduwonks” in their goofy canvas sneakers.

  7. Oh, no kidding, SuperSub. Teachers in Korea get 12 – 14 hours a week of plan time.

  8. Man, if teachers only had a couple of teaching days a week and had the rest of their time to plan and evaluate… wow.

  9. Mike in Texas says:

    Randi W. is an idiot, instead of hobknobbing with Gates she should be kicking his ass for the way he talks abou teachers.

  10. I’m not asking for 12 hours a week to plan… maybe an hour a day that isn’t otherwise occupied by team meetings (weekly), department meetings (bi-weekly) , parent meetings (usually end up being biweekly), faculty meetings (bi weekly), building planning team meetings (biweekly), the mentor-mentee untenured meetings (bi weekly), or the “its not required but you’re untenured so here you go” club meetings (weekly).
    The only time I regularly get to plan is in class and I can’t remember the last assignment that wasn’t graded by the class as a whole or by trusted student volunteers.

  11. All these comparisons to China should be fleshed out. At the end of 6th grade, all students are evaluated. Those who test well go on to better schools and better options. Those who do not test well, get the bottom of the barrel. All hope is not lost after the post-6th grade test. After the 9th grade, another test is given. Students either stay where they are or rise/fall from their current school environment.

    The United States won’t adopt this education style because it is segregation. Students are separated but not necessarily given the best schools. Only the best for the cream of the crop in China.

    I really hope Gates and everyone else would drop the comparison with China unless they include talks about transforming our education system to mimic China. And while they are at it, they also have plans to do away with the Anti-Segregations laws. When they do that, they will lose support from at least 50% of the nation.

  12. I’m not a big fan of the NFL, or most professional sports teams. However, I’d be curious to interview a coach to hear what they think makes a successful player, from the minute the player touches a football for the very first time. Would the coach say “drill” or “rote” learning is not important? Would a player like Peyton Manning have achieved success without years of drill?

    What if you asked the same question of a symphony orchestra conductor, or the choreographer of a ballet?

    Yet, many educators don’t think any sort of practice of skills is important….they’d like to skip right over the fundamentals.

  13. Beyond rec level, kids are chosen for sports teams based on skills, knowledge of the game and fitness. Once the team is chosen, kids who don’t work – both at practice and on their own – are cut. Kids who don’t show up and behave, either at practice or at games, are cut. Every kid has to try out for the team every year. Each game and has a winner and a loser. In travel league play, it’s promotion (up to next division) or relegation (down to next division) for the top and bottom two teams each season.

    Our schools refuse to separate kids based on achievement and/or motivation, allow constant misbehavior (or worse), and are so worried about the little darlings’ self-esteem that they are not told that they need to work harder and behave better. Assignments are not routinely corrected for content, grammar or spelling; some schools have banned the use of red pencils as too traumatic. Strange, none of my teachers worried about self-esteem (it developed when something worthy was achieved), but self-control and hard work were absolute virtues.

    I remember reading reports of a study (maybe studies) that said that in Asia, a low grade was typically blamed (by kids, parents and teachers) on a lack of effort, while in America, a low grade was seen as a reflection of ability. Given the concern about self-esteem, teachers no longer hand back red-pencilled papers with comments like, “this is unacceptable; you can do much better”, “this is unreadable, re-do it, ” “see me after school ” “did you actually read this book?” etc.

  14. Really, momof4? Because I write that sort of thing on papers all the time. I use regular pencil, though, because it erases better. I prefer “This sounds like a great book, what’s its title?”

    SuperSub: I have student assistants do some grading, but essays are alllllll mine. And I have to grade regularly to see who is getting what/make adjustments. I throw in specific questions for that. Sometimes those are the only questions I do more than skim, though.

  15. While we’re at it, let’s throw in there the idea of year-round schooling again. It is the norm around the world except for here. And if we’re looking at sports teams, even in the off-season there is mandatory training.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    There’s a difference between thinking that the teachers should be treated as if they were in the NFL and thinking that the kids should.

    My impression from the interview was that they were talking about the teachers.

  17. Lightly: I am delighted to hear it. I guess there are a few islands of sanity and decent standards.

  18. Yes! Give me NFL style schools! 17 week teaching term! Cut the worst performers and only keep the “A” students! Give me 20 assistant coaches uh, teachers to help coach all that “across the curriculum stuff”.
    Have a play off where the best are the winners and only one winner.
    What I’d really like is the long ,long, long, winter lay off. Then in the spring I get to draft my best students for the next go around!
    Wow what a teaching life! Yahoo!

  19. Mark Roulo says:

    Yes! Give me NFL style schools! 17 week teaching term!

    What I’d really like is the long ,long, long, winter lay off.

    I don’t think you understand how the NFL coaches spend their off-season time. 🙂

    They don’t get a layoff. They spend the time preparing for next season. Or they quickly find themselves unemployed.

    -Mark Roulo

  20. Mark Roulo says:

    See here for typical NFL head coach off-season activities.

  21. NFL or no, the one major educational reform that’s relatively low-cost and makes sense is giving teachers more collaborative planning time.

    Lord, how I wish I had time to meet and plan with my colleagues. And not during off-hours, because lots of them have small kids and families.

  22. Nana, when do teachers meet if it is not during off hours. Our district shaved an hour every week from instructional time so teachers would have more time for inservices etc. At the school my kids attend, such a cut should have never happened.

    I do almost all of my work related meetings, training etc., in my off hours….no one cares if anyone has small kids or families…that is just how it works.

  23. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Working in “off hours” sucks, but teachers are essentially salaried employees. When I was practicing law, no one asked me if I’d rather be at home than in a 7:30 pm strategy session that went until 9pm, followed by 4 hours of mad writing. I could have just left for home and wife, of course — no one chained me to the table and whipped me into submission — but that would have been an unmistakable signal that I wasn’t serious about my job and our clients needed us to be working that late.

    Now, teachers aren’t paid as much as attorneys — but at some point a teacher needs to decide if he or she is a union employee or a professional; whether a late-night teachers’ meeting is an imposition or an opportunity.

    I freely admit: the relatively low salaries and the structure of the teaching profession combine with the relatively lax standards for entry to make the former much more likely than the latter. But that’s an engineering problem. The question facing us is one of theory.

  24. Kate,

    Of course teachers meet and plan during off hours. You can’t be an effective teacher without giving that time. I’m not attempting to shirk or avoid those responsibilities.

    In my ideal world, though, (and ideal is what I’m talking about of course) teachers would follow the Johns Hopkins med school approach to practice, which is the discussion of success, yes, but also the discussion of failure. Why lessons failed, what assumptions, prior knowledge, objectives, activities, questioning strategies, writing prompts (etc.) weren’t effectively addressed in a particular lesson. Teachers would have time to model and demonstrate those lessons to each other as an *ongoing feature of teaching practice*, not just during ed school.

    This pre- and post-lesson critique would be built into the school’s schedule. And it would require each teacher to demonstrate, justify, and explain his/her lesson design methodology.

    That’s what I meant.

  25. Mark Roulo says:

    When I was practicing law, no one asked me if I’d rather be at home than in a 7:30 pm strategy session that went until 9pm, followed by 4 hours of mad writing.

    There is a difference between an emergency that shows up at 7:30PM requiring one to work until the wee hours of the morning, and scheduling these sort of hours.

    I work as a programmer (and have for 20+ years). I work around 40-45 hours per week, but work with people who put in 60+. Every week.

    We are all salaried, so the people putting in 60+ aren’t getting directly compensated for it. And, in general, I don’t see much of a correlation between lots of unpaid overtime and career success.

    What I do believe (and, I will add, most of my senior colleagues believe), is that building a schedule that assumes more than about 45 hours a week is unreasonable. This sort of schedule means that the project is either understaffed, the delivery date is unreasonably soon, or the feature set is excessive.

    And, to give my management credit, they tend to not build these sorts of schedules.

    I’d suggest that teachers are in a situation much closer to mine than to yours as a lawyer. The problem isn’t the occasional late-night meeting with parents. The problem is that the work load assumes 65+ hours per week. Sustained.

    I would find this unreasonable at my work and I don’t find it any more acceptable for teachers.

  26. Michael E. Lopez says:


    The sort of thing I describe wasn’t an occasional emergency. ‘Twas a way of life. You don’t bill 2100-2400 hours without putting in about 2800-3000.

    You’re right, of course, that an industry shouldn’t set that as a standard way of operating.

    But that’s why so many attorneys die of heart attacks.