Put me in, Coach!

The big news out of the NFL this past weekend is the Minnesota Vikings‘ release of wide receiver Randy Moss, a player they had obtained from the New England Patriots only a few weeks before. Moss hadn’t been particularly effective during his last game with the Vikings (coincidentally against the Patriots) and had been vocal in his criticisms of the Vikings’ coaching staff, so he clearly hadn’t endeared himself to the team’s leadership. His performance on Sunday was just the straw breaking the proverbial camel’s back.

Making personnel changes in light of disappointing performance is nothing new in football, or in any other major sport, from Pop Warner to the pros. The current coach of USC, Lane Kiffin, is an example of this; one of the youngest head coaches in the NFL, Kiffin was fired by the Oakland Raiders in the middle of (yet another) disappointing season. He was then hired to head the University of Tennessee‘s program, but after his first year he was then recruited to be head coach for the storied USC program after Pete Carroll left to coach the Seattle Seahawks.

It’s far too early to see if the Vikings have made the right choice in releasing Moss, but whether we see improvement with the team or not, how can we be certain that Moss was the variable that was holding them back? Maybe quarterback Brett Farve’s critics are right and he’s past his prime. Or, maybe he’s too focused on the league’s investigation into his not-so-gentlemanly conduct with a female employee of another team. Maybe coach Childress has failed to adjust to changing conditions in the league. Maybe the team hasn’t recruited the right players over the last few years and is lacking talent. Maybe it’s a matter of personalities clashing on and off the field. How do we know which of these, or the hundreds of other, variables is the one keeping the Vikings from getting the results they want.

Maybe the Vikings should let Childress go- after all, blame for a team’s failure is usually placed at the feet of the head coach, right? But, if the coach is the cause of the failure, why do they so often land in other positions, and why do they have success there?

Let’s go back to the Raiders and Lane Kiffin- He was fired 4 games into his second season with the team (they were 4-12 his first year), and they finished the season with a 5-11 record. In 2006 under coach Art Shell, they had a record of 2-14, so under Tiffin had doubled the number of wins from the previous year. Since Tom Cable took over the team, they have finished 5-11 (the same record they had in Kiffin’s interrupted season) and begun this season at 4-4. (Source: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/rai/)

So, if the head coach is responsible for how well or poorly the team does, why do the Raiders continue to be, well, disappointing? They’ve had 5 head coaches in the last 9 seasons, and haven’t had more than 5 wins in a season since 2002 (they finished 11-5).

And, what does this all have to do with schools? Has this suddenly become a football blog?

No. There are things I do well, and sports analysis is not one of them. But I have been thinking recently about the similarities in the approach the owners of football teams and those looking to reform schools take, particularly when it comes to replacing teachers and administrators at under performing schools. After all, it makes sense, right? If a player isn’t performing, trade him. If a coach is losing, fire him. So, if a teacher isn’t getting their kids to score the way we want them on the state test, they should go, right? Same with the principal.

Yes, I know the metaphor breaks down if you take if far enough, but then all metaphors do eventually. After all, pro sports teams have vast resources and can be highly selective of who plays for them. Schools- at least traditional public schools- have limited resources and can’t exactly be selective about the kids who show up to “play” for them.

Teachers and administrators, while doubtless very significant when it comes to student performance, are only part of the equation. Kids come to school from homes where parents are incarcerated, where drugs are abused, where gangs are a constant threat, who have parents who are just plain supportive or absent, and public school take them. Kids have learning disabilities, behavior problems, emotional turmoil, and public schools take them.

I’m not making excuses for schools- we need to find ways to help these kids be successful so they can escape from this cycle, but is the best way to do that to remove the teachers and administrators who have worked towards that goal for years, and replace them with a fresh-from-TFA candidate or former business person?

Maybe this approach seems common-sense. But while it’s so wide-spread, and in so many different professions, what evidence do we have that it’s actually the best approach? Ask the Raiders.

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