The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Changing the Rules of the Education Game

on May 14, 2016

I hope that readers will forgive me for writing about basketeball again so soon, but it’s been a serious study of mine over time, and the current play-offs in which the Portland Trail Blazers performed well but ultimately lost  to the more experienced Golden State Warriors is still fresh in my mind.  Although I’ll get over my feelings soon, I think that the contrast between the rules of basketball and those that currently determine educational practices will stay with me until eduation gets more realistic and reasonable.

As I watched the basketball play-offs this month it occurred to me that education policy makers have something to learn from the NBA. While both professional sports and educational institutions seek to promote excellence in their participants, each group goes about it differently. Basketball gives teams, players and coaches repeated opportunities to show that they can make the grade; public education prescribes only one time and one way: testing.

One important difference is that basketball recognizes that winning a game is a team effort. A big factor in the Trail Blazers’ improvement this year has been their willingness to spread responsibility and glory around. For another, basketball operates on the principle of multiple chances: six personal fouls before a player gets ejected and the need to win four games out of seven in the play-offs. There is also the understanding that even the best coach can’t control his players’ performances; they have to be willing to follow his instructions, play long and hard, share opportunities for success, and restrain their feelings when they think they’ve gotten a raw deal.

But most important, I think, is the recognition of the emotional dimension in any game. It is no accident that we hear about a team “being ready to play,” “having the home court advantage,” and “falling apart under pressure.” We understand that basketball players are also human beings, and that what’s in their heads and hearts strongly affects what their well-trained bodies can do in a game.

I find it strange that none of the rules of basketball seem to also apply in education. While cooperative work, teacher assistance, and second chances are common practices in classrooms all year long, they are not allowed when the time comes for the “big game” (the test). Each student must go it alone; no coaching, no rebounding, no assists.

Also in education there is the single score upon which everything depends, when “four out of seven” might make more sense.   In most states tenth graders who don’t pass the test this time may try again, but not until next year. And third, fifth, and eighth graders in many places get only one chance to prove they are ready for the next grade. There is no way that a student’s high quality classroom performance can over-ride a low test score.

Ironically, a team that plays poorly in the beginning of the season can redeem itself later on, just as the Blazers have done this year; but schools have just one chance at the end of the year to show their results. Moreover, in most states schools are judged by those yearly test scores, and may be labeled “failing” and subsequently closed if the scores are unsatisfactory over a period of time. In all the arguments for more charter schools, student vouchers or other cure-alls,“poor teachers” and “failing schools”are cited as the root cause for student failure, while basketball coaches are rarely replaced because their team didn’t make it to the play-offs.

Finally, the role of emotion in student testing is totally ignored. On that fateful test day a student’s lack of self-confidence, trouble at home that morning, frustration with one incomprehensible test question, or the awareness that there is not enough time left to finish the test may get in the way of performing well.  Shouldn’t  students, like basketball players, get another chance to prove themselves if their test results look bad?

All the differences between what we expect from basketball teams and from schools are not inevitable. In fact, education is more amenable to change than basketball. The trouble is that many of the changes we have seen in the past 15 years are the wrong ones. We have created a system that cares so much about numbers that it has no understanding of the circumstances or the people that produced them. Instead, we should be seeking broader definitions of academic success; ones that offer more and varied opportunities for students and teachers to set reasonable goals and a variety of ways and time frames to reach them. Consideration of the many factors that influence and mark student success is possible through a greater emphasis on classroom performance and less on test scores; through an understanding that good teaching takes into account students’ individual needs, strengths and vulnerabilities; and through public recognition that a good education is not winning a single game, but slowly and surely moving ordinary kids into long-term winners.



2 responses to “Changing the Rules of the Education Game

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    Some basketball coaches make their players feel exactly like some teachers make their students feel–failures without giving them a fair chance. Life is a high stakes test and good coaches and teachers (and bloggers) can prepare kids for that or they can diss the tests and play the kids with the most affluent parents and the most expensive sneakers–ensuring their longevity. As is the case in too many classrooms, the coach is “successful” even though many of his kids languish on the end of the bench, told to cheer for the starters. If the coach kept objective statistics, he could actually demonstrate measurable individual successes and improve the abilities of all of his students to participate in future games instead of playing five players and winning games that are, too often, victories for himself.


    • writerjoney says:

      Are you thinking about professional basketball or highschool basketball? I think that professional coaches have a very different strategy and way of working with their players.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: