Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Bizarre Institution of High School Sports

I grew up in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. At that time, Santa Clara had three claims to fame: the Santa Clara Mission, Santa Clara University and the Santa Clara Swim Club. The Santa Clara Swim Club has 80 Olympic medalists, including 59 gold medals.  One of those, winner of gold and silver medals from the 1972 Olympics, was my classmate Tom Bruce. Tom might well have won even more if not for his teammate and fellow Santa Clara swimmer, a fellow you may have heard of, Mark Spitz.

Public and private sports clubs have been the place for sports all over the world. In Germany, there are 91,000 sports clubs with 178,000 teams.  One in every three Germans (of any age) are part of one of these clubs. One of these is the new FIFA World Cup champion. Throughout Europe, sports are a big part of community life, with sports clubs organized by town, workplace, church or neighborhood. In Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Australia, independent sports clubs or civic groups organize youth sports.  This is by far the model of most of the world. Soccer, rugby, baseball, basketball and dozens of other sport teams practice, play and compete as community or private organizations.

My kids grew up playing Little League and Youth Soccer with neighborhood coaches and lots of parental involvement. By high school though, those
opportunities were gone, replaced by school teams. My son, a talented tennis player, had six different tennis coaches in his four years of high school, none of them knowledgeable or passionate about tennis. He did okay but how much better with a trained coach? He played basketball too, though "played" might be a stretch since he spent most of his time on the bench. You see, high school sports have become elitist. They're not for everyone and kids are cut from teams or excluded from the field every season at every school.

Only in the US and a small handful of other countries are sports the responsibility of secondary schools. We pay a cost for this -- in the quality of coaching, in hiring teachers for reasons other than their teaching,  in students missing class for games, in distractions from academics and in daily miscommunication about the purpose of education.

The Atlantic magazine published an excellent piece in October about how our fixation with school sports affects learning. Given international test scores that show American students performing well in elementary and middle schools, then dropping off in high schools, the author wonders why this unique American institution isn't being examined. A similar piece in the New Yorker raised many of the same questions.

There are parent groups, parks, cities, YMCAs and other organizations already interested in providing youth athletic opportunities. The facilities may have been built on school campuses, but team organization and management doesn't have to be a school function. If the YMCA wants to organize basketball teams and Pop Warner wants to manage football, why shouldn't they?

At my high school in the late sixties, we still all turned out for the football games on Friday nights. But our real athletes were in the pool --  not because of Peterson High's coaches, but because they were coached at the Santa Clara Swim Club. If you believe that sports -- especially competitive sports -- matters, why would you want moonlighting history teachers in charge of it? 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Should Teachers Coach too?

Imagine your boss comes to you and offers you another job. Not instead of your current one, but in addition. After your eight-hour day, she wants you to do a different job for the company for another three to six hours. She also tells you that since it's a second job, you won't receive overtime compensation. You get a second contract at an even lower rate of pay for the second job. How does that sound?

Now imagine that you're an applicant for that job. In order to be hired, you have to agree to do both jobs with no overtime pay. Would you do it?

Labor laws in the US mandate a 40-hour work week and require time-and-a-half compensation for overtime. So you might think this is illegal.  In public schools though, it's not only accepted, it's a way of doing business. Teaching jobs are advertised paired with coaching:

Wanted: High School Science Teacher and Basketball Coach

Schools use the loosest possible interpretations of labor law to consider all of their coaches as "Exempt" employees, in other words not subject to the overtime rules. (Here is one law firm's interpretation of how this is legal. And here's another.)  In fact, they're more likely to get in trouble if they hire their classified (hourly wage) employees as coaches. The loophole in the law allowing schools to assign teachers a second job is big enough to drive an activity bus through.

Most school administrators will claim that they prefer to have their teachers coaching. They face more problems with community coaches who aren't attached to the school than with staff coaches. So from a coaching perspective -- and particularly a workload-for-the-administrator perspective -- teachers make the best coaches.

But do coaches make the best teachers? There are surprisingly few studies examining how coaching affects teacher performance. I did numerous searches and came up with just two: one in 1989 that suggested coaches did not perform well in the classroom and one in 1993 that suggested the opposite. That's it. Two and none in the past twenty years.

In the 1980s, I researched this very topic for my master's thesis. I was able to find little research directly on the subject, but at that time was able to confirm that social studies teachers were the most likely to be hired to coach and was able to look at hiring patterns and classroom practices. It was clear then that very few women were being hired to teach social studies and that social studies teaching tended to be fairly dry and unambitious.

Later, I was hired to teach social studies (only because I could also teach Spanish) and was the only member of my department not a coach. Still later as an administrator, I found my veteran teachers were primarily former coaches, hired to coach but no longer doing so. Hence the perpetual need to fill every open teaching position with a new coach. After a few years, that teacher-coach would leave coaching too and settle into just teaching for the next twenty years.

What I also saw was that many of my formerly coaching teachers had developed routines designed to minimize teacher work and unresponsive to what we know about student learning.

If coaching is our priority, hire teacher-coaches because they often make wiser coaches. But if teaching is our priority, we're doing a disservice. Coaching demands considerable time and attention to planning workouts and game plans. That time has to come from somewhere and the somewhere is classroom planning time. The only way to survive as a teacher is to take short-cuts, planning lessons that require minimal time investment and evaluation afterwards.

If we respect teachers and teaching, we don't ask them to moonlight. And we certainly don't limit our hiring to those willing to give their classroom preparation back seat attention.

See also:  Wrong Focus

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Professionals and Amateurs

I have been known to stroll around craft fairs, marveling at the clever work of others and thinking to myself "I could do that." I'd soon discover that without the vision and design sense, my version would be a pale imitation, hardly the thing that caught my eye when made by someone else. My husband, a lifelong woodworker, makes musically perfect Native American flutes. He used to do high-end art shows around the west and always had a few Georges come by. The Georges were the guys who weren't interested in how to play but only in how to make a flute. They'd take a good deal of his time, had lots of questions, and inevitably their wives would whisper, "you could make one of those, George."

We're probably Georges too. In the 1970s, many of us left the city to get back to the land. Part of the big John Denver migration to the back woods. We designed and built our own homes. There was no architect, no contractor. I'm proud of our home, of the painstaking labor and building decisions we made. Plans were drawn on graph paper and accommodations made along the way. Nowhere for the upstairs bathroom plumbing to go if I wanted to keep the open-beamed ceilings downstairs? Raise the tub and toilet a foot.

I like to think I can do nearly anything on my own. Build anything, fix anything, handle any problem. It's not true, of course. But in our do-it-yourself world, it's no wonder that Pinterest is one of the most popular sites on the web. No need to pay an expensive professional when I can handle it myself.

As a professional educator though, I see things differently. There are many non-educators who believe they have the answers to what ails schools -- from Bill Gates to Arne Duncan to every reporter and columnist I read. We have a system where elected school boards oversee our schools, rarely with any experience in schools other than as a student or parent. As an administrator, I was quite accustomed to listening to parents' and students' ideas about how to make our school better. 

I had to come to terms though with my own amateurish efforts a few months ago. My 90-year old mother-in-law recently lost her husband of 71 years. I had promised to come down and stay a few weeks to help her out. Pauline worked outside of the home only a short while during her life, mostly caring for their immaculate home and raising four children. She has a stack of magazine and newspaper clippings she shares freely with us, advice on everything from taking care of your skin to how to properly burp a baby or tips for removing burnt-on grime from pots and pans. While I was there, she patiently corrected several of my faults.

"Always put the cover on the toilet before you flush. Otherwise particles of your potty float into the air and land on your toothbrush."
"You should bake that fish so it doesn't cook in all that oil."

"Don't you want walnuts on your cereal? Eat a handful of nuts every day."

"We need to keep these lights off when you leave a room."

"This towel is for hands; the other one is only for drying dishes."

It didn't bother me much at first.  After all, I love my mother-in-law. She's always been very good to me. But after a week or so, I started resenting all the corrections. 

It was in the midst of complaining over the phone to my husband that it hit me. I was an amateur homemaker and she was the professional.  She had educated herself through Good Housekeeping and the daily newspaper, by watching Dr. Phil and Oprah, and by many decades of conversations with friends, family and hairdressers about the fine points of taking care of one's home, family and own health. For me, all of these were mere tedium. I could cook a meal and my kids didn't starve. The health department had not come to condemn the filth in my house. And the pets were still alive. But expertise? I had none of it.  How long had it been since I'd clipped a coupon? 

My attitude changed when I realized that just as I was a professional educator, with experience, training and insights that most lay people lacked, she was a professional homemaker, far better trained in her field than me.

The difference between professionals and amateurs was driven home again this holiday season.  We order online occasionally and the delivery trucks have to venture a half mile off the paved road to bring ourpackages. Our mail carrier is wonderful about it and somehow still manages to keep to her schedule. The UPS and FedEx trucks arrive too and are friendly though less predictable about when they'll come. But last December, FedEx's seasonal drivers twice left our packages with a neighbor a half-mile away -- a neighbor we'd never met. There was snow on the ground and perhaps they didn't want to come find us. I tried to call the local FedEx office to let them know but there is no local number. Nothing in the phone book, nothing listed online. Only an 800 number -- the nice man in El Salvador had decent English and tried to be helpful. But his computer readout said the packages were left on my porch, based presumably on the driver's input.

I decided to turn my frustration with the low-paid, part-time seasonal workforce that is UPS and FedEx into a trip to the Post Office just to thank them profusely for being professionals. It makes a difference. 

So educators, stand proud. I know what lousy homemakers most of you are. I've seen your living rooms and front yards. But you are the professionals who know education and what kids need. Let's stop letting the pundits, politicians and journalists decide what's best for our students.  Speak up. Remind them that being a professional is worth something.

You may not be surprised to know I recently hired a professional designer to plan a bathroom remodel. She looked at the tiled steps leading up to the shower and was horrified. "How many people have slipped and fallen here?" She's expensive but maybe cheaper than DIY.

Thanks for the lesson, Mom.