Helping John Merrow Draft Arne Duncan's Big Speech

John Merrow, in the Huffington Post, drafted an imaginary speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan admitting that he had strayed from his roots, "What I have come to realize is that we are focusing too much on test scores -- to the detriment of real learning. That's like a basketball coach paying attention only to wins and losses while neglecting the fundamentals of the game." Merrow then encouraged others to help draft Duncan's speech, and here is my contribution:

The Speech.

As Secretary of Education, I forgot the wisdom of coach John Wooten, "be quick, but don't hurry." I forgot that schooling is a team sport and went along with the risky, one-man-team mentality of "reformers" like Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Joel Klein. "Reformers" want schools to perpetually run a full court press. They want schools to double team every problem, while also running a zone. They demand a high-risk, up-tempo offense, but without allowing for turnovers.

I was swayed by the billionaires and the "teacher quality" craze. I knew that we could not train every teacher to be a superstar. We have all seen the movies about heroic educators and sports stars whose charisma allowed them to soar to superhuman heights. But having actually been on the court, and having grown up watching my mother educate kids, I knew they were just movies. We do not need "one man teams," whether they are superstar teachers, administrators, or federal overseers with the narcissistic game plan of "Whatever It Takes!" Championship teaching must be sustained over a long season, and a long career, and the team's game plan must respect that reality.

John Merrow reminds me of a truism in sports. If you invest your practice time in perfecting complicated offensive and defensive schemes, and I coach the fundamentals, my simpler system will whip your x's and o's. Razzle dazzle plays make for nice highlight films, but victory is achieved by reducing unforced turnovers. Trick plays have their place, but championships are won by those who are fundamentally sound. During my administration, we have gambled billions of dollars on high-risk computerized "innovations," and they are not putting points on the board.

I forgot another first rule of teaching -- that fear is a terrible thing. For instance, coaches call timeouts to turn up the heat on the opponent's free throw shooter so he will miss the shot. Increasing anxiety is never a strategy for getting your own team to play better. Winning teams play under control, or as we say in sports, they play "within themselves." But, I gambled on high-maintenance managers like Rhee and Klein, who want to impose their high-pressure system on everyone.

Al McGuire had a term for players who did not show the proper respect for the team sport. They were "just waltzing it." I now know that I have spent too much time with "reformers" who are just waltzing it. They want to micromanage educators, but without bothering to learn how the game is played. Because they have spent so little time on the actual court, they do not have respect for the game. They have never experienced the joy or the camaraderie of a team effort.

I have wasted too much time with the armchair coaches and their virtual basketball and educational toys. It is time to get back on the pine with real players; real sweat and pain; and share with players the real love for the contest. Its time to get back into the game, with real practitioners, and let the sports trivia aficionados take care of the stats.