Here’s the Problem
(as I see it)
You may not be a fan of the National Football League but it’s hard to ignore its existence --- certainly not from September to February with games played on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday --- with endless ads about those upcoming contests. Even if you’re not a fan it’s difficult to ignore the $163 billion behemoth that is the NFL.
We stopped watching games for several years (a sort-of protest regarding concussion concerns and, for me, the lackluster performance of the NY Giants) but slowly, like the common cold, it has crept back into my system (the Lovely Carol Marie could care less --- and lets me know that any time I flip on a game). This past week we saw the unusual occurrence of a Head Coach being fired during his first season. The Carolina Panthers owner, a man named David Tepper, rather unceremoniously dismissed Head Coach Frank Reich after the eleventh game of the (17 game)season. The Panthers are, of course, 1-10 and their first-round draft pick, a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback named Bryce Young, has suffered the way many rookie players (especially quarterbacks) do. Part of the issue is that Young was chosen #1 in last year’s draft and a player named C.J.Stroud was chosen #2. Stroud, at present, is headed to becoming the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and his Houston Texans are currently 6-5 and alive for a playoff berth. This clearly irked Mr. Tepper, who took out his frustration at being skunked in the draft by firing Coach Reich.
David Tepper is a billionaire (as are all 32 NFL owners) and made his fortune as a hedge fund manager. Other owners made their money in real estate, the technology field, oil/gas/fracking, auto parts, truck stops --- a wide variety of industries. This is true of the NBA and MLB owners as well. In some cases, families have owned and controlled franchises over decades (the Maras, the Rooneys, the Steinbrenners, the Halas & Buss clans, etc.). What is true is that there have only been a few (and quite rare) instances --- particularly in the last half century --- where any team has sustained excellence. There were the Yankees of the late 1990’s and, of course, the Patriots in the first part of this century but, if we’re going to talk about championships, no one else. There are franchises which are consistently good and, in being “good,” make a great deal of money for their (already ridiculously wealthy) owners. Mark Cuban bought the Dallas Mavericks for $285 million in 2000 and just sold his ownership shares for a $3.125 billion profit! During that time the Mavericks were a respectable team that won one NBA championship. If you were my student right now, you’d be correct in asking, is there a point here, Mr. Johnson?
One simple one. People who know how to make a lot of money can continue to make a lot of money when they move to a field they have little or no experience with --- BUT they don’t necessarily know how to achieve excellence in their product. My analogy here is a simple one and, as is my orientation, it’s about education. If we think of a school system as a “business” with a Board of Directors --- like many of the companies these sports owners made their fortunes with --- we might see a connection to professional sports. Two local school systems, geographically close to where I live, have multi-million-dollar budgets. The smaller district has a $57 million budget, the larger one, a whopping $314 million. Not exactly a sports franchise budget, but certainly significant. And here’s where the sports teams and the school districts intersect.
When we’ve seen a sports franchise sustain a level of excellence it’s because the owner --- who does not have expertise in the sport --- has identified individuals (with expertise) to conduct the on-field business and run the show. (NOTE: I’m omitting NBA teams because the nature of the sport means a player or two --- a Larry Bird, a Magic Johnson, a Michael Jordan, a LeBron James --- can make a team a sustained winner, an entirely different equation.) Robert Kraft has had Bill Belichick in New England and the Steinbrenners had Joe Torre in New York (Jerry Jones, briefly, had Jimmy Johnson). As noted, many franchises sustain a “good product” which puts fans in the seats and dollars in the till but to truly sustain excellence (championships) the owners must have an eye for talent that will bring results. Given that the owners have proved successful in fields other than sports, we should not be surprised that they think they can attain success in sports, too.
And so it is with our public schools. While we do have district superintendents (who come and go on an employment merry-go-round --- like Managers and Head Coaches) public schools are run by Boards of Education. And who, exactly, serves on those Boards of Education? Well, members of the Community, of course. Boards of Education are usually unpaid positions and I have no intention of demeaning the citizens who willingly give their time and energy to serve on these Boards. BUT I do have to point out that, like sports franchise owners, they almost never have any professional expertise in education. Yet, our last bastion of pure democracy in the U.S., allows anyone who lives in a community to become a School Board Member. And that is, very often, a problem.
That problem is woven into the very fabric of our unique capitalistic democracy. All too often, people who have been $ucce$$ful in fields like business, law, medicine, etc. have not only had an eye toward their personal “bottom line” but also have very little respect for those of us who have chosen to be educators. I’m generalizing, of course, but after 42 years working in public schools in some way, shape, form, or another, I have dealt with enough Board of Education members to know that they believe conducting the “business” of school is not as difficult as whatever field it is they have chosen as their profession. Knowing schools and schooling the way I do, that attitude is akin to saying, “I’ve flown on planes a lot in my life --- so I think I could be a pilot.” Finding the talent to run a sports franchise successfully --- to win championships --- is, clearly, not easy. And so it is with schools. Because we live in a society that, historically, has little respect for educators (remember, starting in the early 20th century teaching was seen as a “feminine” profession, with all the discriminatory baggage that conveys). There is a sense that those who have been “successful” in other professions (particularly if they are financially successful) “know” how to run schools (“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”). Because schools are one of the only remaining places where true democracy prevails, we leave the running of those multi-million-dollar enterprises to people who have, literally, no expertise in the profession. Like sports franchise owners.
What makes this situation more dire, regarding the education of our children, is that the relationship between Boards of Education and teachers is, far too often, adversarial. I believe that some of that is because teachers, when they finally organized to negotiate for salaries and benefits, did so as a labor union and not a “professional organization” like the ABA or AMA --- who have control over certification of their professionals. Teachers are certified by the State, same as plumbers and carpenters. But I will also lay some blame on the doorstep of those Boards who do not (ever!) consult with their education professionals when creating policies that directly affect what goes on in the day-to-day workings of our schools. When selecting Superintendents and Principals teachers often have “input” that is all too often not taken seriously.
We have a system which, like professional sports ownership, has inherent flaws. Those “in charge” lack professional expertise and, too often, are not curious enough to even ask the right questions of the right people to improve their situations. Interestingly, when people are polled about their own school districts, they say their schools are fine, but all the neighboring districts are “not very good.” At the same time, those polls never ask the teachers what they think “works” and “doesn’t work” in their schools. This lack of checking in with those people who are closest to our students, who are subject to the good or bad leaders the Board of Ed selects, who advocate for the children in their care, are, too often, left out of any of the policy or decision-making discussions that ultimately determine how schools work.
Years ago, James Herndon noted:
The public school is the closest thing we have in America to
a national established church. Getting-an-Education the closest
thing to God, and it should be possible to treat it and deal with it
as the church has been treated and dealt with. The treatment has
not really changed the existence of the one institution and will not
harm the other, but it has allowed for the growth of alternatives to
it and that is what is wanted, even if some of those alternatives have
become, and will become, institutions themselves.
(bold, mine. How to Survive in Your Native Land,
I have worked in schools that were those alternatives --- and they were successful because the Boards of Education and the teachers were mutually respectful and had common goals regarding the students. Too often students and teachers are not at the center of discussions about School Districts. Budgetary concerns and test scores supersede students and teachers. Until we deal with our schools differently --- as concerned citizens and not sports franchise owners --- we may still win some games, but those sustained championships will continue to elude us.