Every time a university football team in Alabama wins a national championship (like the last four years in a row!), I hear the same quip: “oh, we can win a national championship in football, but we’re 49th in educating our kids“. It bothers me. It bothers me first because there is some truth in that statement (not that we’re 49th, cause we’re not, but that our football teams are imminently more overtly successful than our statewide system of schools), but also because winning a football championship involves a different set of variables than successfully educating children across the entire state of Alabama.
There are lessons that we can learn and comparisons to be made, though, in an effort to launch a national championship effort in public education in Alabama. First and foremost, we need leaders who can inspire those in education the way that Alabama football coach Nick Saban inspires the young men in his charge to give their best effort and strive for excellence. [Alabama-haters, stay with me, please. I promise to minimize the Saban references.]
I admire Coach Saban’s way of inspiring and motivating the people around him to seek excellence and to WANT to succeed. He and his assistant coaches manage to work with those young players and bring out the very best football performance those young men have in them.
I want to know how Coach Saban does that. What are The Magic Words? Because those Magic Words need to be spoken to the teachers and the principals and the superintendents and the school boards and the students and the families. And the legislators.
After watching the Crimson Tide convincingly prove they were better prepared and just plain wanted it more than the Fighting Irish on Monday night, I was struck with insomnia, my mind churning, thinking what might it take to motivate the people involved in education to put on a performance like the Tide did. Every single day.
How did the Tide get that third national championship in four years? Remember when the great debate was whether Saban was worth the money the University of Alabama was willing to pay him? And remember how he struggled to get the program back on track?
But remember, too, how the Coach had people rooting for him, wanting him to succeed, throwing money at the program, willing to go through the mud and yuck to get to the winning seasons that everyone knew were just around the corner? How fans disregarded the “haters” and supported their team and the Coach’s plan for success?
Just imagine if the people of Alabama were truly rooting for State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tommy Bice and his team of leaders to succeed. And were willing to throw money at “the program” and go through the mud and yuck even when they weren’t sure it would lead to success, but trusting that Coach Bice wouldn’t lead them astray and a win was around the corner.
Imagine what we might accomplish in education if the people of Alabama took their charge to educate the children of Alabama as seriously as they take the mandate to win national football championships.
Surely, a football team operates in a microcosm, a sub-culture, a walled kingdom. Very controlled, lots of money, everyone knows what is expected of them. Players are chosen and recruited for their talent; cherry-picked, as it were. The Coach develops the plan with the help of others, then gives the orders and the assistant coaches and the players are expected to execute the orders. And those that don’t properly execute the orders, well…they don’t last very long. Obviously, public education doesn’t operate within those parameters. Public education has a much more complicated set of parameters, certainly, with control resting in varied sets of hands.
Imagine if every day every teacher stepped into every classroom and gave it his or her best effort. And students responded with their best effort. Imagine if every parent or guardian gave a best effort in parenting and supporting their child’s education. Imagine if school board members stepped into each and every discussion about schools and put forth their best effort. Every time. Certainly it is much harder to do it every single weekday from 8:00 to 3:00 and beyond. But it can be done.
So why haven’t we launched a national championship effort in public education in Alabama? The components of the game are similar. In football, there’s a playbook that gives options to adapt to a changing set of circumstances, and the coaches’ and players’ jobs are to implement the plays that will result in a successful drive each time the team gets the ball. String together a series of successful drives, and that team will most likely win. [My apologies to those who better understand the game of football. This is how I see it.] Careful attention is paid to nutrition, training, and nurturing of each player’s body and character. Support and discipline are part of the delivery system, too.
Each school day is divided into periods. Each class has a playbook (a.k.a., standards, course of study, curriculum, lesson plan). Each teacher functions as a coach for that drive. At the end of each day/game, a teacher/coach can size up whether the effort given in the class/drive was superior or whether the teacher/coach needs to step up their game to make the next class/drive more successful. The principal has a role. The students have a role. Families should provide nurture and care and character-building as well. All of the grownups should be working to support and motivate the student/player to, in turn, give their best effort.
So why don’t we do it? What is holding us back? Maybe we accept less than excellence in too many instances because sustaining a best effort is hard. Maybe we put forth mediocre efforts because we are tired. I hear the excuses we make for why children don’t succeed. Maybe we accept losing the game because we don’t consider ourselves winners.
But maybe it’s also because we don’t have a good answer to the question: How do we know when we win?
What Is the Definition of a “Win”?
What is a “win” in public education? In football, you know you’ve won the game if, at the end of four 15-minute periods, you have more points on the board. You win a national championship if you win enough games to get to the Big Game….and then win that one, too.
But what is an ultimate win in public education? There is a curious section in the Code of Alabama that claims to define what the people of Alabama want from our schools, a.k.a., The Win:
The Legislature finds that the people of Alabama desire two basic things from their public schools:
(1) High achievement for students.
(2) A safe and orderly environment in which to learn.
And that’s it. Those two simple things. That’s what “winning” means. Of course, the next question is “how high?” followed by “how safe?“. That’s where we get ourselves confused. It is as if each person who interfaces with a school (teacher, student, parent, principal, media) has a different measure of how high and how safe and the right path to get there. And the rules keep changing. As does the measuring stick. So who defines those parameters?
In the state of Alabama, that would be Coach Bice and his team of assistant coaches at the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) in Montgomery. Coach Bice has defined what winning means in Plan 2020. And in the Flexibility Waiver Request sent to the U.S. Department of Education last September.
Do You Support the Coach?
Imagine if, before the football season even started, work began to dismantle the confidence that a team’s workers and supporters had about every aspect of their team: “This player stinks, don’t know where they recruited him from”, “This coach has no business being a head coach cause his record of success is slim”, “The plays this coach chooses have no basis in reality and don’t take into account the players’ natural abilities”, “The team wastes too much money on frivolous activities like hotel rooms and training”, “We are nothing but a bunch of losers who will never succeed cause our players just don’t have any talent”.
Now imagine that those criticisms were coming from the assistant coaches, the insiders, on the team. Those that are responsible for implementing the coach’s plans. You would ask yourself: how can the team possibly survive, let alone succeed, under those circumstances? How can fans support that team when all they hear is the bad stuff?
That’s what I see happening in education: too many of the assistant coaches and other insiders systematically dismantling the confidence of the team’s fans by criticizing and picking apart every single plan/recruit/play that the Head Coach suggests. Not to mention the number of Armchair Quarterbacks out here in the viewing public (hand raised) who complicate the message regarding the success of the children in our public schools in Alabama because it isn’t improving fast enough to suit us. Constant and damning criticism isn’t always what’s needed. There is a way to question policies and rules in an effort to strengthen the foundation. Commit to be part of strengthening the foundation.
Bice said just this morning in the State Board of Education meeting that while the Plan is now in place, the hard part will be staying the course. There will be many that will attempt to push the Plan aside in favor of their direction, but he encouraged the Board to stay the course, remain committed to the plan, not to fall prey to “chasing rabbits”, while acknowledging that the plan may have to be adjusted as implementation becomes a reality.
How Do We Celebrate Our Wins?
When a football team starts winning, everyone jumps on board to support the team. Those team wins are well-documented and discussed widely. Sports media proudly broadcast fancy highlight reels of the winning team, newspaper media print up newspapers in advance with victorious front page headlines without even being sure the team will win just to be part of the celebration. Sports radio can fill hours with interested parties dialing to share their opinions. Fans line up for hours to purchase merchandise that was created without the assurance that it could ever be sold. Sound familiar?
Contrast that scenario with this: annual accountability results are released for education and newspaper headlines proudly proclaim which schools failed; school districts struggle with finances and news media carefully pick apart the wasteful spending. Those school districts that performed well or have successes to celebrate are forced to issue their own press releases in the hopes that somebody somewhere might have some space left over to share the good news. Does the line to attend parent-teacher conferences wind around the school building? Not from what I hear. Instead, teachers and principals often beg and entice parents and families with food or other incentives to attend student conferences.
The media tells us where to view the BCS National Championship Trophy and how we can take a picture with it, but they don’t tell us where to go to support our schools and the education of our children. Why do complaints about the failures of our schools roll easily off the tongue, but yet we have such a hard time starting dialogue about the great things going on in our schools?
This isn’t to say that the Alabama print and television media don’t make space for the successes, because they do (Sarah Verser’s “What’s Right with Our Schools” comes to mind). It is as if our Alabama school community believes that success in public education in Alabama is considered a fluke or an aberration. It’s not a fluke. We are making real progress in public education in Alabama. There is much progress left to be made, for certain, but we MUST take note of the wins in order to continue to support the team. We must inspire each other to continue to support the team. We must find better ways to meaningfully support the team.
The Foundation for Winning Is Set
The playbook has been developed. It is Plan 2020. Coach Bice has demonstrated his belief in children and his commitment to overseeing the education of the children in this state. If our team is to be successful, each person that is a part of the team (that’s ALL of us: parents and families, students, teachers, principals, superintendents, boards of education, businesses, non-profits) needs to listen to the plan and provide critical feedback about the plan as we move forward with implementation.
I believe that Coach Bice and his team in Montgomery will listen and make adjustments if necessary. For example, to start the new year, Bice has asked teachers to communicate directly with him prior to February 1st about how the ALSDE in Montgomery can better support their work in the classroom.
So many of the plays and rules were rearranged in 2012 to set that foundation for winning. It’s up to all of us to implement those plans and provide critical feedback when problems arise. Take your role seriously. Advocate for our children’s future.
Do You Know Your Role?
Do you know what it takes for the children of Alabama to win? Do you know what the playbook says and what rules we are playing by? Do you know what role you need to play to support our team? If you have a favorite sports team, you know your role, right? Do you know what to do to support your school? Your district? Make 2013 the year you find out.
We parents and families are not mere spectators. We parents and families are assistant coaches in the game of public education. Our efforts and support are crucial to the success of the game. We are to help motivate and support the players and strengthen their spirit and nurture their character. There are additional roles, certainly, but in the basic framework of what it is we parents and families should be doing, think of yourself as an assistant coach. Surely we know what is best for our children, but Coach Bice and his team of assistant coaches in Montgomery really do call the shots in public education in Alabama. That does not minimize the importance of our role, though, in order to create and maintain a team that consistently wins.
Be a Part of the National Championship Effort
Put forth your best effort, every day. Seek to find commonalities in goals, not differences. Find what is working and help schools and teachers and students expand upon those winning efforts. We all want the same thing, don’t we? We want Alabama’s children to receive an excellent public education so that those children can grow up to be successful in whatever they choose to be. We must all work together to make that a reality.
Let’s launch a national championship effort in 2013 for the 740,000+ children of Alabama. They are certainly worthy of our investment.