Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

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.

School & District Management Opinion

What Ted Lasso Can Teach About Schooling

By Rick Hess — September 28, 2021 4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Francesca Pickett is the nom de plume of a current senior federal education official who occasionally writes with me for the National Review. She’s an exquisitely trained social scientist, a trenchant observer of the human condition, and a terrific writer. Every so often, she feels compelled to share thoughts on educational questions that extend beyond her narrow fiefdom. I’m happy to accommodate. Today, she shares some thoughts on Apple TV’s hit series “Ted Lasso” and what it has to teach about schooling.

—Rick

I’m a sucker for sports movies. But when Apple TV launched its series Ted Lasso last year, I resisted. The premise seemed like a hackneyed celebration of ignorance. An American football coach hired to lead a British football (i.e., soccer) team because the owner wants to lose in order to spite her ex-husband? Response: eye roll. (Plus, I already saw this plot decades ago in the Charlie Sheen movie Major League). Fast forward a year and now, well, “Football is life!” (Disclaimer: There are some spoilers for the show ahead.)

In the show, we follow Coach Lasso as he and his assistant, Coach Beard, leave behind their Kansas football life to navigate the unfamiliar cultures of Britain and “real” football. Ted doesn’t assimilate. Rather, he changes the people and culture around him through his relentless kindness and optimism. From Ted’s first press conference as coach, journalists wonder whether his arrival—marked by ignorance and inexperience—constitutes an elaborate joke. Gradually, he wins both them and his team over with his folksy nature and his commitment to cheerfulness, even amid defeat.

In a typical rom-com, Ted’s football club, Richmond, would be winning on the basis of friendship and love. But in this show, they don’t. The problem? Panglossian encouragement is not a panacea. And here the show’s social commentary gets real for America’s schools, with its message that optimism and hope can’t make up for a lack of reflection, diligence, knowledge, expertise, and experience.

Before a big game, Ted tries to inspire his team with a speech that pays homage to the one Gene Hackman’s basketball coach delivers in the classic film “Hoosiers.” Hackman has his small-town team, intimidated by the colossal gym where they’ll contend for the state title, measure the court and hoop to see that they’re the same size as in the tiny gym where they’ve won all year.

Channeling Hackman’s coach, Ted tells his nervous players that the pitch at the legendary Wembley Stadium, where they’ll play before tens of thousands, is the same size as the one they play on at home. Turns out, it’s not. An assistant coach points out that this soccer field is much larger than the one they play on at home. Rather than inspire his team, Ted leads them onto the field convinced that they’re being led by a nice guy who has no idea what he’s doing.

Despite such blunders, Ted maniacally and repeatedly reassures the team, “That’s all right! We’re OK!” They’re not. In fact, the team wins only when Ted reaches out to someone who knows what he’s doing—a retired football legend and an insightful (alternatively certified) assistant coach.

Ted can’t develop winning strategies because he doesn’t understand the game and doesn’t learn. Even after a year, Ted is still baffled by the basics. He doesn’t comprehend why an offside doesn’t warrant a penalty and uses zero instead of nil for scoring. The Brits don’t let him get away with the errors, but Ted also doesn’t care to remember the lessons. After one loss, Ted proclaims, “Now it may not work out how you think it will. Or how you hope it does. But … it will all work out.” Yet the losses keep coming.

Meanwhile, the other American import, Coach Beard, demonstrates the power of learning, discipline, and humility. He pores over books about football, accumulating a fundamental understanding of the sport. Ted? He focuses on funny team names.

What’s frustrating is that the show seems reluctant to acknowledge the implications of what the viewer sees each week. Ted is only a hero if ignorance, lassitude, and a refusal to confront reality are heroic traits—but the show has yet to wrestle with any of that.

So much of this surfaces routine frustrations of life in American education, making one think of all those who ignore the science of reading in order to dwell on how reading makes kids feel. Sure, a third of the nation’s students are below basic in reading, but, “We’re OK!”

It brings to mind that, when we’re forced to ask what to do about students who’ve lost a year of instructional time to school closures, there are those who insist, “Don’t worry! It will all work out.” And others who seem more intent on making sure no one says “learning loss” than on doing something about it. And still others who, when assessments expose poor performance, spend more time attacking tests as wrong and unfair than on making sure kids are numerate and literate.

Education reform is so often developed and then driven by enthusiasts who seem to expect that their passion will carry the day. Yet, time after time, their reforms disappoint when they reach real classrooms and real students where the motivational speeches and high hopes can’t overcome impracticality and inattention to detail. Like Ted, they expect everyone to change but are reluctant to accept reality and change their own ideas.

In “Ted Lasso,” even as it celebrates Ted and excuses his failings, there are limits. When Ted nonchalantly dismisses the team’s string of losses, Coach Beard angrily corrects him. Performance matters, Beard insists. “Losing has repercussions. We lose, we get relegated.” Whatever Ted may wish, there are real consequences for failure.

Kindness, optimism, and good cheer are important things. They’re wonderful things. But they mustn’t be allowed to excuse ignorance, ineptitude, or failure, in sports or in schooling. Sometimes, at least, it seems like “Ted Lasso” knows it. We should, too.

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.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion We’re Facing a Looming Crisis of Principal Burnout
Caught in the crosshairs of a pandemic and rancorous partisan battles, many principals have never been more exhausted.
David E. DeMatthews
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration of burnt-out leader.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty
School & District Management What Teachers Value Most in Their Principals
For National Principals Month, we asked teachers what they love most about their principals. Here's what they had to say.
Hayley Hardison
1 min read
Illustration of job candidate and check list.
Getty
School & District Management How Staff Shortages Are Crushing Schools
Teachers are sacrificing their planning periods, students are arriving hours late, meals are out of whack, and patience is running thin.
11 min read
Stephanie LeBlanc, instructional strategist at Greeley Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine.
Stephanie LeBlanc, an instructional strategist at Greely Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine, has picked up numerous additional duties to help cover for staffing shortages at the school.
Ryan David Brown for Education Week
School & District Management With $102 Million in Grants, These Districts Plan to Train Principals With a Focus on Equity
The new grant program from the Wallace Foundation will help eight school districts work on building principals’ capacity to address equity.
11 min read
Image of puzzle pieces with one hundred dollar bill imagery
Getty