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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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The Patriots and the ‘Unpopular Stuff’ of Excellence

By Rick Hess — February 02, 2017 3 min read

It says something (though I’m not sure what) that we’re just days from the Super Bowl, and yet that overhyped colossus is barely on the radar screen—swamped by fights over executive orders, the Supreme Court, Cabinet appointees, Trump’s tweets, and all the rest. At such times it can be helpful—it may even be important—for us Beltway types to seek a bit of perspective by looking outside of Washington. So let’s do that today.

A couple weeks ago, I observed that the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans reflected very different organizational philosophies after the Patriots whomped up on the Texans in a playoff game. The victorious Pats players talked about what they should’ve done better; the losing Texans about how they really played well enough to win.

The column spurred a number of interesting responses, including one from the ever-thoughtful Mike Goldstein (founder of Boston’s MATCH Charter School), who offered some thoughts on the challenges of cultivating educational excellence. Of the Patriots, Goldstein noted, “In addition to relentless focus on execution and some apple pie-type stuff, there are some parts of their program that are simply ‘unpopular but important.’ In No Excuses schools, this would include actually enforcing a code of conduct, which blue-tribe people HATE to hear about if you’re explaining what makes a ‘KIPP-type school’ succeed.”

Goldstein added, “For the Pats, one ‘unpopular but important’ component is [that] Belichick is the most aggressive guy in the NFL at firing people, even midseason. He has dismissed a ton of extremely talented players (Jamie Collins this year, considered their top defensive player)—because the guy’s effort had diminished, and he was creating a bad tone in the locker room. All the commentators HATE how Bill gets rid of established players—[it’s] unpopular but important.”

There are a few critical insights here worth pulling out. And they seem especially timely as the Patriots prepare to play for the championship before 100 million viewers on Sunday.

One is that it matters why someone is disliked. There are leaders who are disliked because they are arrogant, self-serving, or mean. But there are also leaders who attract criticism because they are doing the hard, unpleasant work of addressing ineptitude and setting a high bar for performance. Way too much journalism and popular discussion lumps these together. The result: one leader is cast as visionary and tough-minded just because he’s obnoxious, while another steps up to tackle stubborn problems and is labeled abrasive for her trouble. Unless and until we’re sorting that out, we’re going to reward the wrong things and the wrong leaders.

Two, in any organized endeavor, whether that be football or schooling, it is professional culture that is the key to excellence. But it is policies, norms, and expectations that help forge a culture. As I wrote a number of years ago in Cage-Busting Leadership, “Culture does not exist in a vacuum. This is what critics of teacher evaluation and the defenders of tenure miss when they insist that reform proposals are ‘attacks’ on the profession. These measures are tools for creating a more responsible and professional culture. (Now, like any tool, they can be used well or poorly.)” What Belichick has done is ruthlessly and relentlessly created the conditions for a culture of excellence.

Three, there’s a key lesson here for efforts to “take things to scale.” There’s a natural, healthy desire to want to replicate promising models that seem to “work"—and a temptation to do so by mimicking the easy parts. Hire more great teachers? Check. Use new technology? Check. Embrace professional learning communities and project-based learning? Check. Sign overpriced, recognizable stars? Check. Use new, cool-sounding lingo in the offensive game plan? Check. The problem is that this stuff is fine, but it’s all pretty epiphenomenal. It’s the same kind of stuff that dozens of football teams enthusiastically do while posting mediocre results year after year. When one gets caught up in fancy new jargon and strategies, it’s easy to overlook the simple, difficult stuff of culture-building—the cutting of a talented player because of his deteriorating attitude or the importance of unyielding expectations governing behavior and performance. This stuff can be unpopular, unpleasant, and even controversial. So it’s much easier to do the catchy, easy-to-like stuff—even if it misses what’s important, yielding a culture of mediocrity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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