Welcome To The NFL

This American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten – Bill Gates dual interview in Newsweek is interesting on a few levels. But one part jumped out at me.  While discussing learning and constant feedback Weingarten says:

Football teams do this all the time. They look at the tape after every game. Sometimes they do it during the game. They’re constantly deconstructing what is working and what isn’t working. And they’re jettisoning what isn’t working and building up on what is working, and doing it in a teamlike approach.

At the Pee-wee level, perhaps. But Weingarten is presumably talking about the NFL, where the professionals play for money.  She’s exactly right in her emphasis on creating a more professional environment in schools, the lack of professional norms are a huge problem and unions and management contribute to that culture. But the NFL is probably not her best talking point on this score.

That’s because the NFL, on the field, is a ruthlessly meritocratic and management-heavy institution.  Performance matters more than anything else (Does anyone think that if Michael Vick had come out of prison without the skills to play at that level anymore we’d be hearing about second chances and all that? Instead, we’d be hearing about how the league takes a tough line on behavior like this…).  And the culture of accountability is high.  Although a popular email that makes the rounds in education asserts that NFL coaches are not expected to achieve great performance with just whomever shows up (ostensibly showing the absurdity of accountability rules based on student performance), in fact they basically are.   Four NFL coaches have already been fired this year, fairly or not, and you didn’t hear a lot from them about how their players were the problem.  It’s just how it works at that level.  And to the idea that this is all collaborative, the conventional wisdom right now is that New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s job depends on a win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday, despite the fact that the players, including quarterback Eli Manning, back him.

As to the players, it’s hard to find an institution more at odds with how schools are generally operated than the NFL – and the players are unionized.  The union rules cover basic protections but don’t guarantee players more than minimum salaries.  If, for instance, the NFL operated the way school districts generally do it would have been difficult for Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan to bench quarterback Donovan McNabb as he did a few weeks ago.  And, even if he succeeded, McNabb presumably could have “forced transfered” his way into another offense somewhere where he had more seniority than the existing quarterback.

Weingarten’s right that NFL teams dissect play during the games, the attention to details that escape the casual fan is amazing.  But those decisions are made quickly – just ask any player who has been benched during a game for poor play or a lousy decision – and not by consensus.  This is an especially relevant point because one of the big sticking points between high-performing charter schools and teachers’ unions is the ability to quickly remove and replace a struggling teacher, during the school year and without a lengthy process.  And, of course, within any locker room are players making wildly varying amounts of money and as we’ll soon see if there is a strike next season many NFL players are not cushioned millionaires with fat contracts.

So, if there is a lesson from the NFL it’s that a culture of high-performance and accountability is compatible with basic protections for workers.  But we shouldn’t take the NFL example too far.  A few weeks ago in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Washington Redskins already slim playoff hopes slipped through the hands of holder Hunter Smith along with a wet football on what should have been a routine extra-point sending the game to overtime.  Smith was cut early the following week though it wasn’t clear the error was entirely his fault (it wasn’t a great snap to begin with and the weather conditions were horrendous).  Still, Smith publicly and privately took responsibility because it was his job to get the ball down for the kicker.  The Redskins had a new punter-holder by midweek even if many players on the team didn’t think Smith should be the fall guy.

Though we obviously need to change how schools operate in terms of personnel, do we want a culture in schools where people are fired for a single mistake – especially one of dubious provenance? I don’t think so.  Weingarten may want to pick her metaphors more carefully, it’s hard to square her gauzy view of the NFL with the reality.

8 Replies to “Welcome To The NFL”

  1. I agree that the NFL is a poor choice for making comparisons to public education, but the idea of using data, evaluating film, inspiring youth etc. are all good and valuable tools to help kids grow. Unfortunately as a society we focus too much on the win-loss record and not the steps needed to improve.
    As my college basketball coach used to say – “focus on doing what you are supposed to do and on getting better and the score will take care of itself”.
    I followed that mantra for 20 years in public education as an English teacher.

  2. Malcolm Gladwell made comparisons between predicting who will be a good teacher and who will be a good NFL quarterback. You can see it here:


    I thought there were all kinds of flaws in the argument, one that is relevant to the analysis here. For most quarterbacks, they don’t start their rookie year. They spend time learning the system. Even if they do start, teams often bring in a veteran backup quarterback to mentor the rookie.

    In a broader sense, the NFL fulfills what schools consistently violate: what Richard Elmore calls the “principle of reciprocity.” Elmore argues that for every level of improvement asked of a teacher, the school owes a “unit” of support. It is this principle, really, that makes high-accountability acceptable. It might be that Smith, the holder, was cut because of one mistake. It might also be that the team had been coaching him this whole season and, despite trying to support him and help him improve, he wasn’t developing the way they needed him to.

    In the NFL, the units of support are plentiful (coaches, facilities, technology, etc, etc). In schools, they are often scarce. Of course, if we looked at per-pupil expenditures for a school and per-player expenditures for an NFL team, I imagine we’d see some similar discrepancy.

  3. Quite right.

    Randi doesn’t understand how professional football works.

    The head coach is a near autocrat, and he can get rid of anyone on his staff or team at the drop of a hat. Fat chance Randi would want the public school analogue (the principal) to have similar powers.

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  5. Ms. Weingarten might also give us the names of the NFL teams that let their players call in sick when they aren’t sick, not to mention those that give lifetime tenure to players who have been on the team for three years. Oh, and the teams who pay players who don’t play. Comparing teaching to life in the NFL was about the worst comparison she could have made.

  6. Oh, and the teams who pay players who don’t play.

    Washington Redskins-
    Donovan McNabb and Albert HAynesworth

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