Education Should Imitate Sports

Mohan Sivaloganathan is the Director of Development and Civic Engagement for Citizen Schools New Jersey

My wife and I are huge Lakers fans. I know, that causes an interesting situation when you work for an organization that’s headquartered in Boston. But that’s another discussion – let’s talk about how the Lakers (and sports) connect to education in America. Even with their success over the past few years, the Lakers frustrate us far too often. For example, our emotions in response to Metta World Peace’s three-point shooting have gone from disappointment to annoyance to amusement by virtue of disbelief. As of January 11th, his shooting percentage on 3s is 8.7%. The NBA average is ~33%. If I rolled up ten pieces of paper and threw them over my head toward a trash can, I’d probably make just as many shots as Metta does from 3 point land. 

Even my favorite player, The Lord of the Rings (aka Kobe Bryant), can drive me crazy. This season, Kobe is shooting 52.2% on shots from 10-15 feet. The Lakers win when he plays the midrange game. They lose when he fires up threes and unnecessarily dribbles all over the place. Now let’s switch to football. You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t heard of Tebow-mania. The guy knows how to win, and I’m not talking about Charlie Sheen winning. I’m talking about playoff winning. How? He’s not a Drew Brees-type who will air it out 40+ times a game. That’s not what works. He’ll call the option, run his RBs, and hit his WRs for a couple of deep plays per game. That’s a formula for success. They use it and it works. See where I’m going?

Something I love about sports is that you won’t find a clearer example of absolute achievement. The team that scores more points is the better team. Champions are the ones who maximize the use of their strengths and minimize the impact of their weaknesses. Notice that it’s not about the quantity of strengths and weaknesses – it’s about capitalizing on what you know will work. That’s where our national debate in education is falling short.

The airwaves are constantly flooded with theories and nice-to-haves. A certain individual or group might adopt an idea and just run with it, irrespective of the data, the evidence, or anything else that might help them to make a well-informed decision. Politicians aren’t the only guilty parties here (yup, I’m sure they’re the ones who jumped to the top of your mind). It happens in education all of the time. As a result, not only do we lose sight of what’s truly effective to win, but we also lose sight of who we’re playing for: the kids.

The kids aren’t interested in your pet beliefs. They’re not interested in your untested theories. They want something that works, and they want it right now. I’m sure you can relate. Here’s something for the Boston-ites. If you’re a Patriots fan, do you want Tom Brady to hand it off 30 times a game? If you’re a Celtics fan, do you want Rajon Rondo to shoot five 3s a game? (As a Lakers fan, I’d love that.)

The fact is we know what works in education. We have the data. Here’s just a sample of what’s proven to drive results:

  • High quality teachers with high expectations and demonstrated leadership experience.
  • Principal control. Allow them to own and manage hiring, goals, culture, and accountability.
  • Data-driven instruction and accompanying professional development for educators.
  • More school time for students.
  • 21st century curriculum standards, with a particular focus on math & science education.

Let’s spend our time discussing how to do even more of what works. It’s about championships, people.