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Fran Tarkenton says teachers must be more like NFL players, American education is broken

Published: Friday, Oct. 7 2011 10:30 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Sept. 11, 2011, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) gains yards against Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington (58) during the second half of an NFL football game in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals won 28-21.

Ralph Freso, file, Associated Press

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NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and entrepreneur Fran Tarkenton offered his opinion on how to fix education in America this week in an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal titled "What if the NFL Played by Teachers' Rules?"

The former star quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants, began by asking readers to imagine an alternate-reality version of the National Football League to create a comparison between NFL players and teachers and teacher unions.

"Each player's salary is based on how long he's been in the league," he wrote of this imagined NFL. "It's about tenure, not talent. The same scale is used for every player, no matter whether he's an All-Pro quarterback or the last man on the roster. For every year a player's been in this NFL, he gets a bump in pay. The only difference between Tom Brady and the worst player in the league is a few years of step increases. And if a player makes it through his third season, he can never be cut from the roster until he chooses to retire, except in the most extreme cases of misconduct."

Tarkenton added that in such an atmosphere, players would not be incentivized to work harder, "the on-field product would steadily decline" and "no matter how much money was poured into the league, it wouldn't get any better."

Tarkenton complained that this is how American public education is run and that those who give suggestions for reform are "demonized for hating teachers and not believing in our nation's children."

Multiple news outlets reported on Tarkenton's piece. Some commenters said Tarkenton was spot on while others say he didn't have enough knowledge of the system to comment on it or that his analogy is a bust because it compares players to teachers instead of students.

Rush Limbaugh loved it: "So you put the school system rules in charge of the National Football League, and people are gonna stop going. They'll stop buying tickets, they'll stop buying merchandise, they'll stop watching. Advertising sales would dry up because fewer people would be watching games on television. ESPN would not pay the NFL $1.9 billion to broadcast the games. That was Fran Tarkenton's point: There's no incentive."

Forbes contributor James Marshall Crotty called Tarkenton, known as a mad scrambler as a quarterback, a "mad scribbler," too. It was a compliment: "Should teachers be treated like professional football players," he wrote, "whose salaries, job security, and other perks are determined almost exclusively based on individual performance metrics, regardless of the quality of their management, stadiums, equipment, coaching, practice facility, the quality and ambition of their fellow players, their level of fan support, age, health, competition, weather, whether they primarily play indoors or outdoors, or sundry other factors that might empirically affect their performance?"

That's the wrong question, wrote Marc Epstein, a Ronin-Teacher for New York City High Schools, for the Huffington Post.

Epstein called Tarkenton's analogy "loopy" and added, "Somebody at the Journal should have told Fran that the teachers aren't the players who 'can't be fired.' We are the coaches who are expected to turn everyone who walks through our classroom door into a star in a game where nobody is allowed to lose.

"Try running an NFL team where every walk-on is expected to play and excel and see how long the league survives.

Back at Forbes, Crotty said Tarkenton was wrong on one point.

"I disagree, however, with Mr. Tarkenton that the root cause of this country's declining academic performance rests primarily in bad teachers," Crotty wrote. "Rather, I think the root cause lies in families of origin, where the critical thinking, reading, and listening skills so essential to success in a global high-tech economy, need to be modeled from the earliest possible age. When parents engage in lifelong learning, their children follow suit. There's only so much a star athlete, star coach, and star teacher can do to achieve excellence when those he is working for, or working with, do not share the same no-excuses commitment to excellence."

Everyone agreed the problems in education do require asking tough questions, like those raised by Tarkenton, said a writer for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, based in Michigan.

"While our country excels at football," Jarett Skorup said, "the education system as a whole leaves something to be desired."

Skorup referenced a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows that inflation-adjusted spending per student has more than tripled since 1970 and at the same time scores have remained flat, a statistic Tarkenton mentioned in his piece.

John Stossel wrote about this phenomenon last month, saying, "While most every other service in life has gotten faster, better and cheaper, one of the most important things we buy — education — has remained completely stagnant, unchanged since we started measuring it in 1970."

"Why no improvement?" Stossel asked. His answer: "Because K-12 education is a government monopoly and monopolies don't improve."

One commenter on Tarkenton's story at the Wall Street Journal's website, William Drose, wrote: "Mr. Tarkenton, I like you. I've watched you play many a time. But anybody who really thinks football is tough, try being alone in a closed room with 30 kids on a routine basis, then keeping their parents happy, too. ... I'm not a teacher, never have been. But I've known several and have never envied one; they've got one of the most trying gigs on the planet. And one of the very dumbest gigs on the planet is leveling consistent attacks upon those who have the ears of this nation's children every day."

Yet another said teachers should not take this as an assault on them personally. "The system needs adjusting," Chris Wery wrote. "Teachers need to stop taking criticism of the system as attacks on them and the students."

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com TWITTER: saralenz

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