Pundits are drawn to sports-as-life metaphors like sailors to sirens. Education policy pundits are no exception.
Sports can help us understand the general issues. The sports/education analogy I use the most is that of the non-participant still having the potential to be an expert or effective leader. There’s a long list of non-players who have successfully led franchises – think Theo Epstein, who succeeded in the front office of the Boston Red Sox despite relative youth and not having an on-the-field background. There are effective school administrators who don’t have a background in teaching or in education at all.
There’s a much, much longer list of former players earning miserable legacies as coaches and executives despite having been wonderfully successful players. There are school leaders with plenty of teaching experience who aren’t terribly effective in administration.
It can be an indicator, but not much more; success in sports and education depend on a combination of factors.
Using sports to explain education gets trickier when you focus on an individual case. Those specific examples seldom match up with a complex point once you really get down to the details. Despite the pitfalls, the often-bold Rick Hess went that route in his examination of New England Patriots’ Coach Bill Belichick in “The NFL’s Humbling Lesson in Hiring Turnaround Leaders.”
Hess’s point is that re-creating successful models – whether it’s an NFL team looking to improve or the Harlem Children’s Zone trying to expand – isn’t as easy as following a recipe, rolling the dough and laying down the cookie cutter. Hess is right when he says it isn’t that simple.
That’s about where Hess stops being right.
We’ll go line-by-line, FJM style.
Owners desperately seeking to turn around their teams are wondering how they get their own version of Belichick or another successful coach.
Not every underperforming sports team has a gaping hole at the head coach position – just like every underperforming school may not need a change in leadership. Some teams need assistant coaching changes or overhauls on specific aspects of their roster; some schools need administrative changes, more effective communication (internal and external) or to replace specific, or blocks of, personnel.
So, no, not every owner “desperately seeking to turn around their team” is looking for a new head coach.
The most popular answer is to get a chip off the old block; NFL teams love to hire the assistants of winning coaches. This is thought to provide access to the secrets, strategies, and steely purpose that fuel their success.
Assistants and position-specific coaches aren’t hired so much because they tagged along behind a winning coach, but because of their role in that team’s success. Their efficacy is usually gauged by plenty of metrics – and I know Hess loves good data – that inform the hiring decision. A defensive coordinator whose former team led a defense to stifle the passing game (measurable in several ways) and stunt the rush at impressive rates (also measurable) could be hired as the head coach of a team with a solid offensive coordinator. They’d complement each other well.
And that strong defensive coordinator may or may not have come from a winning team. There are quite a few superstars, both players and coaches, whose quality is mired in their team’s rotten overall performance. Reference Steve Carlton’s 1972 pitching performance for the abysmal Philadelphia Phillies if you’ve got any doubts.
Long story short, saying that teams hire assistants because of their former boss’s success ranges from oversimplification to defying reality. What’s it all mean, Rick?
Turns out that it’s hard to replicate successful strategies–even when new coaches have trained at the knee of a successful icon and have an unlimited ability to build staffs, teams, and cultures in their own image.
Yes, it’s hard, whether it’s sports, education or business. We can follow the best practices and generations of accumulated wisdom, but that’s no guarantee we’ll arrive at the destination on time – or at all.
Hess’s point rests on the assumption that an assistant was trained or groomed by that master head coach. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t.
But we’ve got a false comparison here. Coaches usually have discretion over who their assistants will be, but they aren’t always guaranteed any say over who their players will be. In some cases, they don’t have any say. They largely work with the roster they inherit.
That’s a very different scenario than starting a new school from scratch. A school leader, like whomever is heading up the Jersey Children’s Zone, can hire the staff he wants before opening the doors. He’s unburdened by legacies or failures of the past. The school leader really can build the equivalent of “staffs, teams, and cultures in their own image” from the get-go whereas coaches have to spend years – if their contract, performance and bosses allow – making their model a reality.
It’s apples to kumquats.
If success was as simple as figuring out what works and then doing it, one would expect Belichick’s former assistants, having observed his methods first-hand, would be poised to replicate them.
No, we wouldn’t expect that. We established quite a while ago that because they’ve observed a successful coach and, presumably, have performed well in their coaching sub-field doesn’t mean they can achieve success in the same way themselves.
And if turnarounds are mostly about importing better staff and “proven” strategies into failing organizations, their records should seemingly reflect Belichick’s.
I’m having a difficult time not making a “logical Lambeau Leap” joke here.
But six former Belichick assistants have had NFL head coaching gigs, and they’ve produced a uniformly mediocre record. Romeo Crennel was 24-40 with the Cleveland Browns. Jim Schwartz is in the middle of an 8-24 run with the Detroit Lions. And when Josh McDaniels was mercilessly fired in the middle of last season, he was on a 5-17 run with the Denver Broncos. All told, former Belichick assistants are a humble 100-152 as NFL head coaches. Whoops.
Hess leaves out a few important details:
1) In the NFL, as I pointed out before, a head coach might not have much say over important factors like who’s playing on his team. Charter school leaders answer to higher authorities, but their level of autonomy in selecting and managing their team is an NFL coach’s dream.
2) These teams were largely awful. That they weren’t turned into playoff teams in the first two seasons doesn’t mean the coach was the problem. We’ve got owners, coaches/staff, players, and “the organization,” that collection of everything from marketing to the legal team to infrastructure to government relations. It’s tough to walk into a bad situation, have autonomy over 10% of it and bank on a 24-month miracle.
Belichick’s success seems to rest on attention to detail, excellent personnel management, and a “whatever works” philosophy that makes use of a number of role players.
In short, he’s a good manager. It’s not the only effective management model, but his core principles go a long way toward getting the job done.
Belichick’s record has also been intertwined with the success of the enormously talented Tom Brady and a committed, stable ownership.
He’s got some talented players (and the ability to pull in/drive out personnel) and supportive bosses. Schools need all those factors, too. (So does just about every other organization on the planet.)
In school reform, there is a similar fascination with finding out “what works” and imagining that “successful” leaders can make this work, or that a seemingly effective model will work anywhere.
You caught us. We’re fascinated with figuring out what’s effective, matching that up with the proper personnel and then trying to replicate it. GUILTY. AS. CHARGED.
In just the past couple weeks, we’ve seen breathless coverage of the new effort to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in New Jersey. Everyone’s supposed to be reassured that it’ll work because iconic HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada is going to play some kind of vague advisory role. Count me as unconvinced.
Consider yourself counted, Rick. You’re on two lists now: “Unconvinced” and “People Who Misuse Sports Metaphors in Education Policy.”
HCZ in Jersey might be a flop, but I like its chances.
We aren’t quite as dumb and naive as Rick thinks we are. We know that in sports, business, schools or in any of a host of sectors, matching a good plan with good people and then supporting the project properly is a decent recipe for success. We also know that it’s no guarantee, but we know it’s better than the status quo.
Rick might be right about the bloggers, edupundits and politicians being overly kind to the HCZ-clone’s chances, but what are they to do? They have to assume that the plan will be executed as intended (and as its predecessors were), that personnel will live up to their expectations and abilities, and that the entire project will receive the support it needs. They know this.
Hess cites the unfortunate case of DC’s Dunbar High as proof that things don’t always go as planned; those hired by Michelle Rhee to turn it around were booted after 3 years. Did their model really fall flat? Was it a case of a great model just not translating into success at a particular school?
You’ve got to read all the way to the 2nd paragraph to get a clue:
Henderson’s removal of Friends of Bedford comes after a series of complaints from parents, teachers and other community members about safety, security and academics at the 750-student school in Northwest. She has said that during her visits to the school, she saw students roaming the halls and classrooms without teachers.
Safety issues were a major concern for the school community – especially after the widely-publicized, on campus gang rape of a 15 year old girl. I’m not sure that wouldn’t have occurred under the old administration – who really knows? – but when safety is an issue and there’s no order for students or teachers, there’s a problem with execution regardless of the model.
Here’s Hess’s conclusion:
Even in the NFL, where coaches are largely free to hire, fire, and operate,
Again, no, they aren’t – not remotely comparable to starting a charter from scratch.
… we see how poorly a fancy pedigree can predict success.
We could analyze the professional success of those who went through premier college basketball programs like Duke. We’d find that not every Duke player flourished in he NBA, but the average Duke player had a greater impact than, say, the average University of Albany player, and it’s no accident. One is a “pedigree program” with a certain model, staff and support system. The other is… the University of Albany.
Or we could keep on the NFL-assistant-pedigree theme that Rick chose. I’ll fight on his turf.
The legendary coach Bill Parcells had some great assistants in Dallas:
- Todd Haley won the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs in just his 2nd year. The Chiefs were 10-6 this year; they were 4-12 last year under Haley. (We call that a turnaround.)
- Tony Sparano just finished his 3rd year with the Miami Dolphins. The AFC East is a tough division with the Patriots and Jets; Sparano won the division with an 11-5 record in his first year, then finished 7-9 in the following two. He’s still employed.
- Then there’s Sean Payton, who inherited a 3-13 New Orleans Saints team after the 2005 season. In 2006, the Saints finished 10-6 in 1st place in the NFC South. Payton’s success doesn’t stop at the one-year turnaround; the Saints won the Super Bowl under Payton in 2009 and continue to perform well.
Belichick, too, is a Parcells protege.
I won’t pretend that these men did it all on their own or as a result of their tutelage. Their successes combined their leadership, appropriate rosters, effective ownership and the broader efforts of their organizations.
I also won’t pretend that combination of factors, including their prior experiences, didn’t increase their chances of success. No guarantee, just better odds.
Hess may have called this a “Humbling Lesson,” but it’s more of a fumbling lesson. Fumblaya, fumbleina, fumblerooski – take your pick.