Education Opinion

Tom Izzo, the World’s Greatest French Teacher and Cutting Costs in Education

By Nancy Flanagan — March 26, 2013 4 min read
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Regular readers of Teacher in a Strange Land know that I loathe sports/education analogies. Equating the Common Core to “having the same goalposts,” for example, or the desirability of “box scores” for teachers--it’s all Grade A ball-park baloney. Hot-ticket sports are entertainment and education is something else entirely. Both fine in their own right, but really--apples and watermelons.

So it was discouraging to see this headline: Right to work explains why Tom Izzo makes more than a French teacher. And even more discouraging to read the piece, by political strategist Ken Braun, which suggests that Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is worth every penny of his $3.5 million dollar salary and Michigan’s new RTW legislation opens the way for teachers to start raking in six figures. His example is the “best French teacher in the country"--call her Ms. LePew--who could start her own online video-lecture franchise, hiring cheap and replaceable face-to-face underlings, providing schools what they need, French-wise, just as Izzo gives Spartan fans what they’re looking for.

The analogy doesn’t work on any level, and the piece probably would have sunk like a stone, beyond the fact that it’s just in time for March Madness, and people in Michigan are likely to read anything with Izzo’s name in the title.

A column about excellent pedagogy in world languages would never have drawn upwards of 600 comments, either. In fact, the teaching of languages is so disrespected that the Michigan legislature currently appears to be in the process of dropping a requirement that all students have experience with world language instruction for two years. The reason seems to be that “career-ready” workers needed for our economic future aren’t likely to run into anyone who doesn’t speak English, here in the home of the brave. So much for 21st century global awareness.

Here’s what’s wrong with Braun’s argument:

#1) Tom Izzo, contrary to the first sentence, is not an educator. He’s a basketball coach. And honestly? I don’t think anybody’s contribution to American society is worth $3.5 million. (Bill Moyers, maybe.) Salaries, especially in the United States, have never been commensurate with societal value of accomplishments. Unfortunately.

#2) Excellent teaching is not a process of presenting unforgettable, dynamic lectures. Doesn’t work in first grade or middle school--and not for high school French teachers, either. Nor can low-paid surrogates “proctor” or “tutor” kids to authentic learning in the physical absence of the teacher. Good teaching is many things, but all of them are based inextricably on a teacher’s knowing her students personally, understanding their strengths and gaps-- and demonstrating a commitment to their learning. It’s an interactive process.

Anyone can watch an engaging TED-talk prototype and pick up a few ideas or facts. But that’s not teaching and it’s certainly not learning. Learning involves doing something--deconstructing ideas, practicing skills, using feedback, assessing progress, applying knowledge to problems--and a couple dozen other possibilities. It’s not an information dump.

#3) Izzo is the right coach for the Spartans. He may not have been a winning coach for the Cavaliers, a jump-to-the-pros opportunity he considered a couple of years ago. Likewise, it is impossible to determine who the “best” French teacher for any given school or even any student might be.

Public Impact and other reformy non-profits relentlessly campaign to give the “best” teachers more students, as if improving education were a simple matter of rationing, lopping off “low-performing” teachers and exposing more kids to the so-called superstars. There is, however, little evidence that actual learning--the useful kind that sticks--can be linked to some kind of Amazing Teacher Fairy Dust. The part of the equation that’s overlooked is the nonstandard one-to-one relationship between teacher and student, persisting through trials, errors, edits, experiments, etc.

#4) Tom Izzo does not lecture to hundreds of college basketball players, as Braun suggests Ms. LePew should do, spreading his basketball effectiveness far and wide. He’s only in charge of 12 guys, and has a staff of auxiliary coaches--a “class size” and budget that would make any K-12 public school teacher weep. He gets to boot head cases and miscreants. Even Izzo, who recruits top basketball talent from all over the country and offers teenagers major perks (like instant fame and a free education, should they choose to value that), gets variable results.

#5) Braun’s case is predicated on false measures of success. In sports, winning games is the only metric that matters. Other qualities in a coach, like close, guiding relationships with players or graduation rates, come into play for winning coaches only. The nicest guy in the world doesn’t keep his job if the team isn’t winning. And when the team is winning, the things people are willing to overlook are truly mind-boggling.

It’s different with K-12 teachers--and should be. Teachers bring much more to a child’s experience than the mythical celebrity educator whose students “jump a whole grade level just being under her sway.” How do we know when Ms. LePew is effective? She doesn’t have personal contact with her thousands of students, so we can’t ask them, or their parents. You know what we’re going to rely on, don’t you? And what will have to happen so she gets “winning” data every year?

Sparty on.

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.