Football Is the Model for Education Reform

On Tuesday, August 24, 2010, the Obama administration proudly announced the winners in its Race to the Top competition, its prescription for improving American education. Nine states plus Washington, D.C. were to split $3.4 billion. Winners were selected according to a 500-point system using nineteen criteria as applied by a still-unnamed panel of experts. These standards reflect today's reform grab-bag of vacuous remediations, none of proven effectiveness, that include improving the performances of principals, articulating a state's reform agenda, promoting charter schools, developing common academic standards, turning around low-performing schools, or even making more educational funding a priority (click here for full list). So as not to alarm tech-oriented overseas rivals, a mere fifteen of 500 points reflected a commitment to the study of technology, science, engineering, and math.    

Without question, Race to the Top will be a financial bonanza for cash-strapped blue states (seven out of ten winners) and states with strong teachers' unions. These fuzzy criteria, when coupled with fresh Washington cash, will also enrich innumerable charlatans, quacks, and opportunists feeding off "educational reform." What, for example, is "[s]upporting the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments"? Hard to say, exactly, but it will certainly require hiring well-paid experts to implement it. Like President Bush's ill-fated No Child Left Behind panacea, Race to the Top will fail. Its "successes" will reflect only bureaucratic trickery or outright cheating, not academic improvement. 

Disappointment is inevitable since there is nothing, absolutely nothing in any of these prescriptions that will encourage students to strive harder. Race to the Top only pressures teachers and administrators. It is just blithely assumed that all children crave learning, so all we need is some bureaucratic tinkering; but as countless similar reforms demonstrate, even energized teachers and administrators cannot work miracles with indifferent students. Not a single carrot, let alone stick, is applied to any student. Tellingly, the specifics of student proficiency go unmentioned, and the lack of clear targets invites rubber yardsticks. 

This $3.4-billion boondoggle embodies the cardinal principal underlying contemporary American education: do not push students hard, for not only will the student be annoyed, but so will the parents, and if parents are upset, heads will roll. Spend billions to make learning painless, even fun, for those with short attention spans. Education employment now means keeping "customers" (i.e., students, parents) happy with inflated marks for mediocre work and tolerating rampant anti-intellectualism. 

To appreciate Race to the Top's irrelevance to accomplishment, consider an education-related endeavor that abhors mediocrity, deception, and lame excuses: football. Picture a college, Football Factory U or FFU, famous for its stellar teams, regular bowl trips, prime-time TV coverage, and sending players to the NFL, all cheered on by football-crazed alums demanding excellence. But it has suddenly experienced a string of lackluster seasons, and worse, it was regularly being blown out by its historic cross-state rival, Goodtime University (GU).

The Grand Pooh-bahs of FFU assemble and decide on drastic action. They interview several prospective Head Coaches, all with first-rate résumés, all of whom articulate glittering plans -- attract top assistant coaches, apply the latest computerized technology, hire counselors to help troubled athletes, create a data base of promising high school stars, even employ a statistician to analyze opponent proclivities. The common theme is upgrading FFU's failed "system." According to one applicant, "assistant coaches need to commit to a winning tradition, stay focused, and promote teamwork, and this requires open communication."

Then, one final candidate arrives -- a truly terrifying hulk known only as "Gonzo." He, too, has a string of winning seasons but offers a radically different "educational" philosophy. He explains that you can't always recruit top talent, but, he adds, you can get the most from average players with brutal discipline, inculcating a strong work ethic and kicking slackers off the team. This may be painful, he cautions -- twice-a-day practices in August, a harsh conditioning program (including cottage cheese for fatties), quick punishment for those missing a block, not to mention hazing sissies. His motto is "hard work never hurt nobody." Gonzo confesses that he cannot guarantee championships, but with decent talent, teams will be very good, and occasionally, they will be ranked #1.

Predictably, the one faculty member on the committee is concerned about harming young football recruits; yelling at them constantly, often with "salty" language; their public humiliation (Gonzo requires chronic fumblers to carry a pink football to every class); and his other infamous, "barbaric" tactics. Gonzo's defense is to hand over a list of former players willing to testify on how he transformed their lives thanks to imparting mental toughness, tenacity, discipline, and willingness to make sacrifices. Several recount that while they hated 6:00AM practices and memorizing a four-hundred-page playbook, they remain eternally grateful. Many, in fact, went on to live successful lives, sometimes despite impoverished childhoods, and Gonzo is their hero.

Gonzo is hired with a three-year, multi-million-dollar contract, and anxious incoming football recruits begin getting into shape months early. Holdovers from last year's 1 and 9 team consider transferring to less competitive football programs. Meanwhile, Gonzo himself is busy, since a 5 and 5 performance cannot be twisted into a 9 and 1 record by adjusting scores for bad luck, prejudicial officiating, unfair rules, the quarterback's childhood poverty, insufficient band noise, travel fatigue, and all else that might decide a close outcome. The Pooh-bahs and football-crazed alums know the score -- winning is winning, and Gonzo's "human capital" approach is the ticket to success.

To convert our feeble education policy into one that resembles far more important football would be a snap, provided officials could handle the outrage when coddled students are forced to shape up. As in the past, assume that students must be forcefully prodded to learn -- hire teachers from the Woody Hayes College of Education. Begin by eliminating all the protections to shield delicate egos from "harm" -- permit teachers to humiliate students, make them wear dunce caps, and otherwise inflict pain for refusing to learn. Even bring back corporal punishment. Critically, stop worrying about parents agitated if junior is sent home for texting during history. And restore "hurtful" grades, especially "F," and if students fail, make them stand on street corners waiting for the bright yellow short bus to take them to the un-air-conditioned, overcrowded summer school. Schools should also be encouraged to hire former Marine drill sergeants and other no-nonsense types.  

Better yet, replace endless administrative tinkering (and social working) with fierce competition. Fifth-graders who win the spelling bee will be celebrated, while losers will be taunted (trash-talking does have its place). Forget about mind-clouding egalitarianism, e.g., schools where everybody can learn. Those getting rotten grades will be treated the same as wide receivers who dropped an easy, game-winning touchdown pass. Principals of under-performing schools will be burnt in effigy, successful ones given radio shows and summer camps. Schools may even recruit potential Merit Scholars by slipping Mom some cash on the sly.  

Equally important, restore integrity to keeping score. The easiest tactic is to make competition zero-sum, just as in sports. Imagine if rival principals could call for an investigation of sudden and unexplainable rises in graduation rates. Let cheaters monitor cheaters, just as in NASCAR.

These possibilities are only the beginning. The key is to take a school endeavor -- football -- that is deeply respected and apply it to an endeavor -- education -- that is not, despite all protestation to the contrary.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com
On Tuesday, August 24, 2010, the Obama administration proudly announced the winners in its Race to the Top competition, its prescription for improving American education. Nine states plus Washington, D.C. were to split $3.4 billion. Winners were selected according to a 500-point system using nineteen criteria as applied by a still-unnamed panel of experts. These standards reflect today's reform grab-bag of vacuous remediations, none of proven effectiveness, that include improving the performances of principals, articulating a state's reform agenda, promoting charter schools, developing common academic standards, turning around low-performing schools, or even making more educational funding a priority (click here for full list). So as not to alarm tech-oriented overseas rivals, a mere fifteen of 500 points reflected a commitment to the study of technology, science, engineering, and math.    

Without question, Race to the Top will be a financial bonanza for cash-strapped blue states (seven out of ten winners) and states with strong teachers' unions. These fuzzy criteria, when coupled with fresh Washington cash, will also enrich innumerable charlatans, quacks, and opportunists feeding off "educational reform." What, for example, is "[s]upporting the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments"? Hard to say, exactly, but it will certainly require hiring well-paid experts to implement it. Like President Bush's ill-fated No Child Left Behind panacea, Race to the Top will fail. Its "successes" will reflect only bureaucratic trickery or outright cheating, not academic improvement. 

Disappointment is inevitable since there is nothing, absolutely nothing in any of these prescriptions that will encourage students to strive harder. Race to the Top only pressures teachers and administrators. It is just blithely assumed that all children crave learning, so all we need is some bureaucratic tinkering; but as countless similar reforms demonstrate, even energized teachers and administrators cannot work miracles with indifferent students. Not a single carrot, let alone stick, is applied to any student. Tellingly, the specifics of student proficiency go unmentioned, and the lack of clear targets invites rubber yardsticks. 

This $3.4-billion boondoggle embodies the cardinal principal underlying contemporary American education: do not push students hard, for not only will the student be annoyed, but so will the parents, and if parents are upset, heads will roll. Spend billions to make learning painless, even fun, for those with short attention spans. Education employment now means keeping "customers" (i.e., students, parents) happy with inflated marks for mediocre work and tolerating rampant anti-intellectualism. 

To appreciate Race to the Top's irrelevance to accomplishment, consider an education-related endeavor that abhors mediocrity, deception, and lame excuses: football. Picture a college, Football Factory U or FFU, famous for its stellar teams, regular bowl trips, prime-time TV coverage, and sending players to the NFL, all cheered on by football-crazed alums demanding excellence. But it has suddenly experienced a string of lackluster seasons, and worse, it was regularly being blown out by its historic cross-state rival, Goodtime University (GU).

The Grand Pooh-bahs of FFU assemble and decide on drastic action. They interview several prospective Head Coaches, all with first-rate résumés, all of whom articulate glittering plans -- attract top assistant coaches, apply the latest computerized technology, hire counselors to help troubled athletes, create a data base of promising high school stars, even employ a statistician to analyze opponent proclivities. The common theme is upgrading FFU's failed "system." According to one applicant, "assistant coaches need to commit to a winning tradition, stay focused, and promote teamwork, and this requires open communication."

Then, one final candidate arrives -- a truly terrifying hulk known only as "Gonzo." He, too, has a string of winning seasons but offers a radically different "educational" philosophy. He explains that you can't always recruit top talent, but, he adds, you can get the most from average players with brutal discipline, inculcating a strong work ethic and kicking slackers off the team. This may be painful, he cautions -- twice-a-day practices in August, a harsh conditioning program (including cottage cheese for fatties), quick punishment for those missing a block, not to mention hazing sissies. His motto is "hard work never hurt nobody." Gonzo confesses that he cannot guarantee championships, but with decent talent, teams will be very good, and occasionally, they will be ranked #1.

Predictably, the one faculty member on the committee is concerned about harming young football recruits; yelling at them constantly, often with "salty" language; their public humiliation (Gonzo requires chronic fumblers to carry a pink football to every class); and his other infamous, "barbaric" tactics. Gonzo's defense is to hand over a list of former players willing to testify on how he transformed their lives thanks to imparting mental toughness, tenacity, discipline, and willingness to make sacrifices. Several recount that while they hated 6:00AM practices and memorizing a four-hundred-page playbook, they remain eternally grateful. Many, in fact, went on to live successful lives, sometimes despite impoverished childhoods, and Gonzo is their hero.

Gonzo is hired with a three-year, multi-million-dollar contract, and anxious incoming football recruits begin getting into shape months early. Holdovers from last year's 1 and 9 team consider transferring to less competitive football programs. Meanwhile, Gonzo himself is busy, since a 5 and 5 performance cannot be twisted into a 9 and 1 record by adjusting scores for bad luck, prejudicial officiating, unfair rules, the quarterback's childhood poverty, insufficient band noise, travel fatigue, and all else that might decide a close outcome. The Pooh-bahs and football-crazed alums know the score -- winning is winning, and Gonzo's "human capital" approach is the ticket to success.

To convert our feeble education policy into one that resembles far more important football would be a snap, provided officials could handle the outrage when coddled students are forced to shape up. As in the past, assume that students must be forcefully prodded to learn -- hire teachers from the Woody Hayes College of Education. Begin by eliminating all the protections to shield delicate egos from "harm" -- permit teachers to humiliate students, make them wear dunce caps, and otherwise inflict pain for refusing to learn. Even bring back corporal punishment. Critically, stop worrying about parents agitated if junior is sent home for texting during history. And restore "hurtful" grades, especially "F," and if students fail, make them stand on street corners waiting for the bright yellow short bus to take them to the un-air-conditioned, overcrowded summer school. Schools should also be encouraged to hire former Marine drill sergeants and other no-nonsense types.  

Better yet, replace endless administrative tinkering (and social working) with fierce competition. Fifth-graders who win the spelling bee will be celebrated, while losers will be taunted (trash-talking does have its place). Forget about mind-clouding egalitarianism, e.g., schools where everybody can learn. Those getting rotten grades will be treated the same as wide receivers who dropped an easy, game-winning touchdown pass. Principals of under-performing schools will be burnt in effigy, successful ones given radio shows and summer camps. Schools may even recruit potential Merit Scholars by slipping Mom some cash on the sly.  

Equally important, restore integrity to keeping score. The easiest tactic is to make competition zero-sum, just as in sports. Imagine if rival principals could call for an investigation of sudden and unexplainable rises in graduation rates. Let cheaters monitor cheaters, just as in NASCAR.

These possibilities are only the beginning. The key is to take a school endeavor -- football -- that is deeply respected and apply it to an endeavor -- education -- that is not, despite all protestation to the contrary.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com

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