Education Opinion

Sports Authority

By Nancy Flanagan — August 31, 2010 4 min read
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Anyone who knows the Teacher in a Strange Land well would find the thought of me writing a blog about sports amusing. Hilarious, even. But I’m going to do it anyway.

Not knowing diddly about instruction, psychometrics or education policy hasn’t kept millions of people from commenting on teachers, standardized testing or the right way to fix American schools. Why shouldn’t a barely informed sports bystander reflect on the alignment between education and high-powered, competitive athletics?

Most bloggers are men
. Most of the best-known edublogs are written by men. Which isn’t all that surprising, until you consider that 75% of the teaching force is female--along with an increasing percentage of formal leadership roles in education.

Sometimes, ed policy world feels like the jocks’ table in the cafeteria, however--men tossing out stats, men wrestling with contrary views , men confidently making strong opinion plays and engaging in a little verbal back-slapping. Men using sports analogies. And getting lots of blog traffic and comments from other men, dissecting those analogies and casually referring to teams, games and athletes. Even Arne “Same Goalposts” Duncan, Captain Secretary of Education, is praised for his:

cool, calm leadership style" [that] first impressed Shaun Donovan when Duncan was co-captain of the Harvard basketball team. Mr. Donovan, now Obama's HUD Secretary, remembers a game when Duncan's play had students in the stands who'd never met before hugging in elation. Duncan tends to pass rather than go for the glory himself. It's a humility that comes through off the court, says Donovan, who plays with the Secretary and President Obama. He's heard both the president and Duncan credit the discipline and teamwork of the sport as a model for life and leadership. When he visits schools, he leaves a signed basketball. And when there's time, he squeezes in a pickup game with the kids, opening the door to a whole different level of conversation.

Well. One of my life goals is getting to a whole different level of communication with education policy makers. So maybe I need to take a leaf from the playbooks of one of these guys:

Mike Lee, of Stories from School, AZ, a terrific new group blog. Lee’s piece on what athletes get paid is priceless: Let me repeat in summary form: Three hundred million dollars. Three guys. They put a ball in a hole.

David Cohen, of InterACT, writing under the pseudonym Lois Angel Tims, wins the prize for brilliant satire in explaining why A-Rod isn’t worth the money he’s paid--the value-added statistics prove it: Now, some there are some A-Rod apologists out there who will try to make excuses; those are people who think that results don’t matter. They’ll try to distract you with other supposedly relevant information like where the games were played, who pitched, which teams the Yankees were playing, etc. They will even say that eleven games is not a large enough sample to draw any conclusions. To them, I say, hello?! The Yankees are 12-0 without A-Rod. Any idiot who understands the concept of winning and losing can see how Rodriguez hurts the Yankees.

Stuart Buck, who wrote the weirdest sports-themed blog I’ve ever read, contributing his theory and proposal for leveraging achievement in low-performing schools--and completely missing the boat in explaining the purpose of assessment: One idea that I think has some promise: eliminate individual grades, and let students compete against other schools in academic competitions. Why are attitudes toward academics and athletics so different? The students on the athletic teams are not competing against other students from their own school. Instead, they are competing against another school. But the students in the same class are competing against each other for grades and for the teacher’s attention. Naturally, that competition gives rise to resentment against other children who are too successful. If you want the students’ attitudes towards their studies to resemble their attitudes toward sports, you should minimize the role of grades -- which involve competition against one’s classmates.

Matt Brown, in the now-defunct Relentless Pursuit of Acronyms on firing all the teachers in a school--or players on a team-- then recruiting new ones: Even though every team plays under the same rules (same salary cap, same in-game rules, etc), not every team is able to build a consistent winner. Some teams have advantages because of their location. Very good NBA players often want to play in a major media market, or in a city with an advantageous tax structure. Others are attracted to a tradition of winning. The LA Lakers, for example, are one of the most storied teams in the NBA. They have strong organizational leadership and one of the best coaches of all time. Even if the Lakers aren’t offering the most money, they will not have a difficult time attracting talent. People want to work in that kind of environment.

Robert Pondiscio, genial host at the Core Knowledge Blog, posting a remarkably detailed take on why education could benefit from the “granularity and specificity” of the statistics kept for baseball: To a baseball fan statistics are a revelation. You can see, if you’re so inclined, a pitcher’s FIP, ERA, strikeouts, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio. The percentage of batted balls that were hit on the ground, in the air, or for line drives can speak volumes about a pitcher’s effectiveness. When a player’s agent goes to negotiate his contract, he can even discuss his “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR), a statistic that measures the total value of a player over a given season compared to an average replacement player. If you’re a principal, wouldn’t you love to know the “school effects” of teacher performance when it came time to make hiring decisions? Would it change your perception of merit pay if there was a classroom equivalent of FIP-the factors directly under a teacher’s control? What if we could compensate teachers based on their replacement value compared to an average first year teacher?

What do we learn from these blogs? We can turn anything into a competition in America? Guys just wanna have fun?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.