This is the sixteenth in a series of open letters I have written to reformers I know and, more recently, that I don’t know over the past two years. Go here for links to the other letters and responses.
Dear Secretary Duncan,
Race To The Top was intended to improve education in this country by finally holding accountable the schools and the ‘adults’ who work in those schools — meaning the teachers — for their failure to get students to adequately grow academically. ‘Ineffective’ teachers need to be identified and fired and ‘failing’ schools need to be identified and closed. Unfortunately the entire program collapses without reliable metrics to judge which schools are truly ‘failing’ and which adults are truly ‘ineffective.’
To illustrate the issues with the accountability metrics that have been the trademark of your tenure, I’ve applied them to something you know intimately, your senior year Harvard basketball team, the 1986-1987 Harvard Cagers. Were the 1986-1987 Cagers a ‘failing’ team? Was Coach Peter Roby an ‘ineffective’ coach? Were you and Keith Webster ‘ineffective’ co-captains? It all depends on which metrics you use.
Your last place finish 9 and 17 record is just one way to judge your efforts. Some would use it as the sole metric and declare this a ‘losing’ season. But if you just look at points scored, you didn’t do so badly with 2152, which was pretty close to the 1972 Harvard record of 2221 points at that time. So if we look at just offense, the team was not failing. But you also gave up 2169 points, which is not so good defensively, though only 17 points more than how many points you scored. The ‘average’ game that season, you lost 82.8 to 83.4. Doesn’t sound so bad when measured that way.
But what if Coach Roby was judged on your performance of just one day? Well, it depended, then, on what day. The ‘86-‘87 Cagers were streaky. You started off 0 and 3, all away games. Then the next ten games you went 7 and 3 bringing your record to 7 and 6. The last two wins were against Penn and Princeton on January 9th and January 10th 1987, who finished respectively 1st and 2nd in the Ivy League that year.
The Penn game is still considered one of the greatest comeback upsets in the history of Harvard basketball. With 11:50 remaining you were down by a seemingly unsurmountable 19 points. With 4:21 left you had chipped away at the lead but were still down by 10. Then Harvard’s top scorer, you, went on an amazing run scoring 14 points in just 3 minutes to set up an eventual overtime. Then, you remember, the legendary finish. Down by 2 with 33 seconds to go in overtime. Phillips ties it up with a jumper with 9 seconds left. Then with the Harvard home crowd going crazy, Webster steals the ball from Elzey and hits the winning shot at the buzzer.
Here’s the footage, in good faith, I found it for you.
Crimson sports writer Jonathan Putnam started his article about these two wins with “This past weekend will long remain one of the greatest in Harvard men’s basketball history.”
After that, the Cagers season went downhill. The next thirteen games you went 2 and 11 tied for last place in the Ivy League in 1987 with the Brown Bears. You had beaten Brown convincingly on February 6th, 108 to 90, but in the rematch on February 21st, your last game at home at Briggs Athletic Center, you lost a heartbreaker. But who on that team could guard you? Who could guard Webster? Definitely not Lynch. No way Murray could either. Even your career high 32 points with 24 of them coming in the second half weren’t enough and Webster had a cool 21. You still lost 90 to 87. That was your game to get out of the cellar. A major missed opportunity. And was that failure one of coach Peter Roby? Or of the co-captains you and Webster? Should Roby have been fired? Should you and Webster have been replaced as co-captains?
Maybe instead of wins and losses, the team could be judged on ‘growth’ or ‘value-added.’ If before the season a computer predicted the Cagers only had the talent to go 4 and 22, then the 9 and 17 record would credit coach Roby as adding some value to the team. But if the computer instead predicted you would go 13 and 13, well, then the team did not meet the growth targets. How would you like it if your hard work was declared a failure by a computer?
Would the same team have really done so much differently had you still had Coach McLaughlin? By 1989 the Cagers were 4th in the Ivy League under Roby and were 3rd for 1990 and 1991. Of course Coach Roby went on to have a legendary career and in 2007 was named one of the 100 most influential sports educators in America by the Institute for International Sports.
You and Webster were celebrated at the end of the season with various accolades, and deservedly so. In Harvard basketball history at that time, only twelve players had ever scored 1,000 points, and you and Webster were two of them.
If the point of playing college basketball isn’t just to win games or score points, but to develop citizens who understand how to be on a team and how to work together and become future leaders, then Coach Roby maybe deserves a coach of the year award for 1987. That season influenced your future. You went on to play some professional ball, first in Rhode Island and then in Australia. Besides Jeremy Lin, there aren’t many other Harvard players who played any kind of pro ball. And then as far as leadership, you went on to become Secretary of Education. Did anyone from the ‘87 Brown team land any cabinet positions? Lynch? Murray? No way.
You know a lot about sports, so let me ask you something: What do you think is in worse shape, our country’s education system or our country’s sports program? I can apply the same arguments you and others use to declare that our education system is ‘broken’ to sports. You might think this is ludicrous: we do well in the Olympics. Our baseball, football, and basketball professional teams consistently trounce teams from other countries. But I can say many good things about our education system too: Our top students, just like our top athletes, can go head to head with the best in any country. Our universities are the best in the world. Our education system has produced some of the most innovative thinkers in the world. We’ve fostered creativity and have also produced some of the greatest musicians and entertainers in the world.
But our ability to produce the top football and basketball players in the world is not proof that our country has a high-performing sports program. With the obesity rate in this country, I’d say that our ‘average’ athlete is not very good at all. To compare countries on an even playing field, the sports equivalent of the PISA tests is certainly the other football, or soccer. In soccer, we are very mediocre. Watching the World Cup game against The Netherlands last summer opened my eyes to how far behind we are in soccer compared to much much smaller countries. Yet we have just as much, if not more, opportunity to field a competitive soccer team.
How would you react if the President appointed a Secretary of Physical Education who had never played sports or coached sports? And what if this person declared that our lackluster performance in the World Cup soccer tournament is evidence that our physical education system in this country is horribly broken? And what if he made the argument that he has identified the problem as the weakness of one of our most popular games, your beloved basketball?
Here’s the argument why: In a soccer game, it is very hard to score a goal. Often for complete games, the score is 0 to 0. Yet in basketball, teams regularly score over 100 points a game. What kind of point inflation is this? With basketball, we’ve been lying to ourselves, patting ourselves on the back for being such great athletes when the reality is that we have not been challenging ourselves with this sport. For one thing, the hoop is way too low. Maybe 10 feet was OK sixty years ago, but not anymore in this global economy. The first thing we need to do to fix basketball is to raise the hoop up to about 15 feet. Dunking wouldn’t be quite so easy anymore, nor should it be. The next thing we need to do is cut back on the inflated score. Why two points for each basket? It should be just one point. And the three point line is way too close to the basket. It should be moved back to about 40 feet.
I do realize that the scores in basketball games will, at least at first, drop drastically. But that’s just at the beginning until players get used to the new rigorous standards. By holding the teams and especially the coaches accountable, eventually teams will be scoring 100 points a game again, and even dunking, with the 15 feet high hoop. How awesome will that be?
You know a lot about sports and basketball in particular so you immediately know in your gut that these suggestions about the 15 foot hoop and the entire premise that basketball is ‘failing’ is nonsense.
But this is how I feel as someone who has been involved in education for almost my whole life about some of the things you have said and done with regard to education in this country. An example of something you said in a TV interview last year: “The vast majority who drop out of high school drop out not because it’s too hard but because it’s too easy.”
I suppose that there are a few kids here and there who are bored by school because it isn’t challenging enough. Most of those kids don’t drop out though, they stick it out and deal with their boredom, I know. No, the “vast majority” don’t drop out for that reason. Kids drop out of school for a lot of reasons, but school being too easy is a pretty rare reason to drop out, and I’m concerned that the Secretary of Education is not aware of this. It would be like the Secretary of Physical Education saying that most kids can’t dunk because the basket is too low.
Secretary Duncan, time is running out. It’s like that game against Penn on January 9th, 1987. There are only a few minutes left and the team is down big. Teachers are fleeing the profession and there is soon, I believe, to be a teacher shortage as new candidates will avoid the profession for the same reason that the older teachers are leaving. Standardized testing is out of control. How much time, energy, and resources are being spent on testing? Your legacy is not looking good right now. But it is not too late. Please can you rise to the occasion as you did that time against Penn when you scored 14 points in three minutes to force overtime? Please captain Duncan, would you muster up the will to lead a final charge and again turn an almost hopeless situation into one of the great comeback finishes of all time?
Arne Duncan playing basketball
Me playing basketball