The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Basketball and Education

on May 2, 2016

Although today’s essay was previously posted on Valerie Strauss’ blog in 2011, I have chosen to repeat it with only a few changes. I strongly believe that the biggest problem in education today is disregard for the feelings, hopes, and needs of students. Policy makers consider only what they want, and they think that foisting their preferences on students and teachers, supported by threats of punishment, will make them happen.

I admit I am a novice when it comes to critiquing basketball. Growing up, I never played the game, and I never watched it or read about it until I became a Portland Trail Blazer fan some years ago. Yet, I am an experienced teacher and principal, used to studying the performance of students in order to help them learn better. I’ve brought my eyes to the game, and what I’ve learned there I’d like to bring back to the classroom.

During the regular season, as I watched the Blazers play erratically, I accepted the professional wisdom that the trouble was that they were playing better teams, using the wrong strategies, being away from their home court, or having insufficient time off between games.

But now, after watching the playoffs between the Blazers and the Clippers and seeing the differences in team and individual player performance from game to game, none of those explanations answer my essential question about basketball: Why does a team play so much better on one night than on another?

In education the questions are not much different. All of the recent reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that the No Child Left Behind law did not shrink the achievement gap between students from wealthy families and students living in poverty. It also showed that high school students have made less progress than their elementary counterparts and that students in large cities did not score as high as those in smaller communities.

In all those instances the question is,“Why”? In accordance with their educational philosophies and politics, different groups and individuals give different answers: bad schools, poverty, unequal distribution of effective teachers, lack of early childhood education, insufficient school funding.

Yes, all these conditions have some negative effect on student performance, but I think there are additional factors that make students learn less and score lower on tests than expected. But my answer to the question is the same as it is would be for inconsistency in basketball: players’ attitudes and feelings.

How does it feel to be a hungry child at a dilapidated school in a dangerous neighborhood with a teacher who reads from a script? How much does a teenager who has little hope of going to college or living the “American Dream” care about acing the big test?  How much confidence does a middle schooler who has been told that he is careless and inattentive by teachers all through the grades have when he faces the 8th grade test? It is just as difficult for those students to perform well as it is for a basketball player whose team is three games down in a seven-game series.

Although we can’t do much more than cheer for our own favorite team, we could do a lot more for our students. Fixing all the things noted in the NAEP results would be a long, slow, expensive process, but it would work better than just tightening the screws on schools, teachers, and students, which was the prevailing government policy under the Bush administration and has continued with only cosmetic changes under President Obama.

What we need are individual school changes that fit the needs of the students at hand. Only when we can bring more positive attitudes and feelings into every classroom will all our kids be winners in the education game.

Later this week I will post an article about one city where the schools have done what I propose and how those changes have affected its test scores.

One response to “Basketball and Education

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    Sensitivity training? You just can’t live in a gated community, belong to nice club, and park your Mercedes in the staff lot–then go in and empathize with poor kids–or their parents. If kids don’t have influential advocates, they have a far different school experience.
    I taught with some good teachers who couldn’t stand economically disadvantaged (often minority) kids; most of these teachers had enough influence to avoid having to teach them.
    But the kids learned from the snobbish teachers’ actions just as much as they would have in class. We teachers pass on a lot of material that we do not intend to teach.


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