Monday, January 18, 2016

'Action bias' does little to help public schools

The first day after the end of the NFL regular season has come to be called Black Monday -- when many a team with a losing record generally fires its coach.

This suits the urges of the owner who has promised a winner to the fans, though he didn't produce players who can win. Blame the coach. Don't blame the owner.

The Cleveland Browns in the last 25 years have had 13 coaches. It makes no sense that all of them were inept. Indeed, one of them, Bill Belichick, has won four Super Bowls with another employer.

A study of this knee-jerk practice finds that rather than improving, it's more likely that a team that fires its top leadership will do worse. Such are the wages of the syndrome called action bias – the "do something" tendency that gets institutions nowhere.

"Teams talk about the need for 'fresh energy' and 'new leadership' and a clean slate," writes Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim in a piece on action bias.

When I hear those phrases, though, I don't think of football. I think of public schools.

I think of good people constantly shuffled away, good institutions turned upside-down, in a quest for a "new team," a "new emphasis," a "new focus."

Action bias has been a trademark in the age of so-called "school accountability." Policymakers with only a marginal grasp of education issues sow fear and disruption to show voters they will "do something."

A lot of great football coaches -- Tom Landry, for one -- were given the opportunity to fail, with stability and long-range goals the objective. School principals today have such luxury in these days of corporate-style school policies – corporate in the form of hostile takeovers by policymakers who often are ideologues who don't even buy into the concept of public schools.

But if the carnage and disruption wrought by constantly reshuffling school administrations defies logic, even more illogical are policies that would close whole schools down for chronically low test scores.

Yeah, blame a building. And let's blame AT&T Stadium for the Dallas Cowboys' hideous 2015 season.

Texas State Rep. Harold V. Dutton says, "Closing a public school campus for being low performing makes about as much sense as getting rid of your car because it is simply out of gas."

I've seen this happen in Texas. I saw an inner-city Waco neighborhood lose what for generations had been its most important asset, a history-rich secondary school. I saw black and brown students bused to far-off schools with more crowded classrooms – over what? Over numbers.

The solution in that instance wasn't to vacate those historic and treasured walls. It wasn't to fire the principal and to ship the teachers to other campuses. The solution was to make the most of the opportunity – yes, the opportunity – to serve the students in that neighborhood where they lived.

Explain to the jury why all of the schools that face these sanctions are in inner cities. Is it because the walls of those buildings sap individuals of their will to succeed?

It's always fascinating that the "failing school" crowd, that which thinks public schools are flawed and hopeless institutions, never acknowledges that somehow public schools do a pretty peachy job out in the suburbs where all the children arrive at school in shiny SUVs and where computer screens glow each night in just about every bedroom.

In those shiny suburban schools, by the way, you are likely to see stability among leadership. Principals there, for some reason, have a tendency to perform exceptionally. They are great, in fact. Go figure.

No, Mr. Owner, you can't blame the stadium for the team's performance. The coach? Firing him might be the stupidest thing you can do. It's all about the players (students and parents), and it's about the resources you have committed to excellence.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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