What the NFL Draft Can Teach School Reformers

We judge a school's or a program's or a teacher's efforts based on a single, easily quantifiable measure: basic-skills test scores in reading and math.
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This Thursday marks the prime-time return of the NFL Draft -- an annual smorgasbord of possibility when each team fills out its roster with the best talent the college ranks have to offer.

I'm a huge football fan, so I'll be tuning in to see which players my beloved San Diego Chargers select to fill our current holes at running back and defensive tackle. I'm also a huge public education fan, so I confess that I wish the leading voices in my field -- from Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee to Joel Klein -- would also tune in, and heed some of the most relevant lessons to be learned from the NFL.

In particular, I wish they'd pay attention to three truisms:

1.Don't Fall in Love with 40 Times - A generation ago, the draft was a low key, information-poor event. Today, it unfolds as prime-time drama in which every aspect of a player's performance -- from game tape to vertical jump to 40-yard dash times -- is intensely scrutinized and available to even the casual fan. The good news about this is that NFL teams are now data-rich when making decisions that can make or break a franchise. The bad news is that many teams lack insightfulness and use their information poorly, thus, they are just as likely to ignore the less easily quantifiable factors that make certain players great.

Case in point: Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver ever to play the game, was undervalued by most NFL teams coming out of college because his 40 time (4.71 seconds) was considered too slow for a receiver at the professional level. But one team, the San Francisco 49ers, paid attention to what really mattered -- how he performed in game situations, and aggressively moved up in the 1985 draft to take him. This August, he'll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Unlike the 49ers of the 1980s, too many of today's reformers have fallen in love with the educational equivalent of a good (or bad) 40 time.

We judge a school's or a program's or a teacher's efforts based on a single, easily quantifiable measure: basic-skills test scores in reading and math. And we ignore or undervalue just about everything else.

In a previous Huffington Post column, I suggested a better way to evaluate success. But any sports fan can instantly see the illogic of the idea. After all, it's one thing to make a mistake on a single player on draft day. It's another to offer performance bonuses to every player on your team based on how fast they run during games. It would never happen. So why do we tolerate the illusion that tying teacher performance to a single measure of student success is any less foolish?

2.Know What You Don't Know - Although some NFL leaders refuse to adjust their long-held beliefs with new realities on the ground -- the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis comes to mind -- the majority of teams realize that all the data in the world can't create a foolproof system of evaluation. Take the uncomfortably high percentage of highly drafted quarterbacks who fail to become stars -- and the surprisingly high number of quarterbacks, like the New England Patriot's Tom Brady, who go on to lead Hall-of-Fame careers despite being lowly regarded out of college.

School principals face the same challenge as NFL executives. As Malcolm Gladwell has written, "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching."

Our current national attention on the teacher, and on teaching, is a huge development since so many of our past approaches - from evaluation to professional support to defining teacher effectiveness - have been insufficient at best. But why do some of the field's leading voices seem believe they've already figured it out? Last week, for example, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said, "We know how to do this" -- referring to systemic school reform -- moments after listing a number of examples of cities where students' 40 times - I mean test scores - had gone up.

Don't get me wrong: helping students improve their literacy and numeracy is important, just as helping NFL players run faster is important. But to cite a single metric while confidently stating you know how to do something as complex as education reform? That's a brand of hubris that's not just misguided -- it's dangerous.

3.Grow Your Own Talent -- Despite the growth of free agency, the most successful franchises develop and deepen their rosters gradually, and over time, via the draft.

Look at last year's Super Bowl champion, the New Orleans Saints. Their best player (quarterback Drew Brees) was a high-profile free agent pick up. The bulk of the remaining roster -- from Reggie Bush to Marques Colston to the anchors along the defensive line -- were homegrown draft choices who developed in the Saints system over time.

The logic behind this strategy is simple -- drafting good players and developing them yourself costs less than acquiring other teams' players at their peak. But there's another reason to build through the draft: developing players from within helps establish an organizational culture, identity, and clarity that can provide a sustainable competitive advantage.

I realize there isn't a teacher draft (although I have imagined what it would look like), but the same principle holds true for schools, which require a clear organizational identity, sustained support, and strong leadership to be successful at helping children learn. Why is it, then, that when we talk about teachers these days, it's as though there are only two types: the charismatic master teacher, or the union-protected laggard?

To be sure, both types exist, but of all the teachers in this country, I'd only attribute 5 percent or so to each category. That leaves the remaining 90 percent of our country's teachers, each of whom has the potential to slide up or down the effectiveness continuum, depending on how well -- or poorly -- s/he is evaluated, supported and challenged.

If we really want to see schools improve for the long haul, we should stop emulating the Washington Redskins -- who bring in high-profile free agents and coaches year after year, and then wonder why they can't seem to establish an organizational identity -- and start learning from the Indianapolis Colts, who have won twelve or more games each year for the past decade, and who consistently draft overachieving, undervalued players each April -- and then keep them for the duration of their careers.

To sustain success in schools the way Colts have sustained success in the NFL, we'd need to place less emphasis on scorched earth policies like firing every teacher in a school, and more on helping current and future teachers improve the quality of their professional practice. We'd need to devalue test score data and the illusion of certainty it provides. And we'd need to stop assuming we already have the answers to all of the current questions, and start figuring out how to more strategically question all of the current answers.

Now that would be an effort worthy of prime time.

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