George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why Can’t the U.S. Education System Be More Like the NBA?

Why Can’t the U.S. Education System Be More Like the NBA?

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In the past 40 years, the U.S. has made enormous strides in the arts, technology, and manufacturing, but our educational system has stagnated. Although a number of factors contribute to the quality of education, one crucial factor is the quality of teachers.

James Surowiecki recently wrote an interesting article ( in The New Yorker comparing teachers in the U.S. education system to NBA athletes. He explored how training for professional athletes has evolved to transform basketball from a clunky “sink or swim” game into a meticulous science. To make gains, he argues, U.S. schools should take advantage of advanced training techniques that other industries and other countries’ educational systems have mastered in the past few decades.

Surowiecki stresses that high performance isn’t based solely on natural talent but “getting better at getting better.” I couldn’t agree more: Constant improvement and evolution is necessary in every field, from professional basketball to teaching.

How Teachers Can Constantly Improve Like Professional Athletes

Today, every performance-based profession uses coaching because it’s extremely difficult to improve in a profession that is both an art and a science individually. Teachers need to understand the content, the scope, and sequence (the science of learning), but they also need to hone their skills in delivery, classroom management, and gaining inspiration (the art of teaching).

Fostering an environment of constant improvement is necessary to keep a classroom from going stale, and teachers can sharpen their skills using three innovative methods:

1. Implement Video-Based Coaching

LeBron James and Kobe Bryant spend a large portion of training time analyzing game footage of both themselves and their opponents. The team has offensive and defensive coordinators who coach the players on what to look for and how to improve. This helps them identify minor mistakes, learn what works in the game, and refine their skills.

Just as coaches make players “review the tape” after a game, teachers also need to see themselves in action. We work with both the Harvard Graduate School of Education and The New Teacher Project to implement similar video-based feedback programs for educators.

These feedback processes allow teachers to watch how they perform and how their classes interact with them, providing a third-party perspective on how they can refine their teaching methods. Video-based coaching is now commonplace in prep programs, and most teachers who have observed themselves on video say it’s one of the most powerful professional learning experiences they have ever participated in.

2. Take Advantage of Peer Coaching

Teamwork is an important skill in any industry. In professional sports, the team is easy to see because everyone is wearing the same uniform. But in the classroom, teachers might forget they’re part of a team, too.

In her book, “Building a Better Teacher,” Elizabeth Green writes how Japanese math teachers rely on observing their colleagues and discussing the curriculum material to improve. According to Green, “no teacher worked alone,” which echoes the constant feedback that professional athletes now depend on.

Implementing a system of peer-based reviews fosters an environment in which teachers know how their peers operate. This allows the best of each teammate’s skills to benefit the entire team. In Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, several of our partner schools have adopted a peer-coaching model, which provides great feedback to teachers and helps them pick up helpful practices from their peers.

3. Train Virtually

Professional athletes have nearly unlimited training resources at their disposal. British cyclist Chris Hoy practiced in wind tunnels at the University of Southampton, and professional tennis players such as Novak Djokovic have entire teams of tennis gurus at their beck and call.

Meeting the needs of 3.5 million teachers ( across the country isn’t quite as simple, but technology can provide a critical missing element by managing the complexity associated with personalizing support to meet educators’ individual needs.

Districts vary greatly in terms of the resources available to support high-quality training for educators. But there are plenty of low-cost and free resources they can use to help teachers refine and improve their skills, including the District of Columbia Public Schools’ IMPACT resource library ( and free videos through the Teaching Channel (

Taking a page from other performance-based professions and leveraging the tools and knowledge available can help make dramatic improvements to our overall education system. It’s simply a matter of prioritization and perseverance.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about making more money, winning a gold medal, or even boosting test scores. It’s about doing everything possible to help our kids succeed.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

EdTechJimmy's picture
Business Development - Education Technology

Love this article. Catchy title too. As much as I am not a fan of Basketball I am coming around.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I agree completely that teachers will improve their skills if they have frequent opportunities to observe, be observed, and receive quality PD (whether virtually or not). But what is different in the United States is the amount of time teachers are with their students. If we spend most of our time with them, we don't have time to add the observations, coaching, training, etc. As it is, most of us don't have time to do the planning, grading, revising, training, etc. that are already part of our jobs.

Look at what this article ( says about the time teachers spend with students: "...the average secondary school teacher in the U.S. puts in 1,051 instructional hours per year. Instructional hours are the hours spent actually in front of kids--in other words, about half of the job, the other half being time spent planning, grading and collaborating with other teachers. In Finland, the average teacher teaches 553 instructional hours per year. In Korea, 609 hours. In England, 695. In Japan, 510."

So before we task teachers with more work (even if that work will help them improve), we need to reduce the number of hours we are with students so that we have time to add your valuable suggestions. You say it's "simply a matter of prioritization and perseverance," but that makes it sound like if teachers just worked hard enough and didn't give up, they could magically find those extra hours that they need in order to coach themselves into better performance. Sadly it's much more difficult (and time-consuming) than that. Do you have suggestions for how these strategies could be implemented in a teacher's already demanding schedule?

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

I came in here hoping you were going to suggest paying teachers millions of dollars. :)

Agreed with aura, that a lot of the ability to peer and self review, receive coaching, etc, is limited by the amount of time on instruction that teachers spend in the United States. Professional athletes spend most of their time practicing and reviewing tape because they honestly don't play that much. A typical game is 3 hours, and most athletes don't play for the entire time, never mind the frequent commercial breaks, never mind that depending on the sport, they can go up to a couple of weeks between games during the season. Practice and reviewing tape are an expected part of the amount of time they are on the job. In other countries, teachers have a lot less student contact time, so teachers have more of a chance to collaborate and reflect in the ways you mention.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Jason, I agree with your points about coaching being very important to the success of a professional and that educators should continually improve. I believe continual improvement should be embedded within the school culture. I've worked at schools where every classroom educator is on their own. But now I'm working in a school where the culture is to continually improve...a little too much at times. (We are working on finding a balance so we don't burn ourselves out though.)

Our small rural school has recently implemented a model of a part time principal/instructional coach. It has been a fantastic change for us. In the past we had a teaching principal who was responsible for teaching a few subjects in a few grades. (We have multiage classrooms.) With the change in job description, she is able to bounce around between classrooms modeling and supporting as necessary and is working closely with all the teachers to continually improve their instruction. She is working to continually improve the schools curriculum and assessment work as well. Our principal views her position as helping us to continually improve and grow. She does this by respecting where everyone is as an educator and respecting our time by helping us recharge ourselves so we can be our best selves. This type of a coaching position only works with the right school culture and personnel (both administrator and educators.) But when the situation is right, it is amazing to see the synergy created between education professionals.

So how do we make this happen on a grander scale? I believe it starts with people, money and time. It takes the right administrators (and board support) to market the school to the community and advocate for for the money which will in turn will help educators find the time for more collaboration, communication, and professional learning. I believe that if educators spent less time teaching, students would in fact learn more. In other words, if educators could collaborate, plan, and prepare better, the time interacting with students would in fact be more effective.

I agree that video based reflection can be helpful for an educator's professional development. There are educators who get PD days to travel to another school- and that is helpful of course. However, I would add that educators need to get in other classrooms WITHIN their school. If an administrator simply gets a guest teacher a few times a month, she can get educators release time to join other classrooms within their own school. They can see their peers interacting with students from their school. I believe within the walls of our schools we have plenty of role models to learn from.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY


This hits close to the heart. I spent that last 10 years coaching varsity basketball, and this is the first year I'm not on the sidelines. I miss the competitive aspect of pushing kids to be better tomorrow than they were today.

I read the New Yorker article and many things stood out, one of which was cost. Most districts say that they would love to implement something like this, yet they don't have the money in the budget to so do. How can this be scaled in a cost-effective way?

JamaEdu's picture


Though the analogy is catchy, it likely ends there. As Laura says in her post, teachers are simply spending too much time in front of students. They find it extremely challenging to engage in the type of reflective training and PD you set forth. The most common refrain I hear from teachers is the lack of time during the school year to address the updating of skills and the observations of peers. Most teachers will spend the entire school year never seeing another practitioner in action.

To Laura's point, we must find a way to take teachers off stage more often. Students can do more on their own if presented with the structure to practice in. The 8-3pm school day with its requisite Carnegie units is a trap from which we seem unable to escape. Students need to develop greater independence both in thought and in practice. After many years of waiting for the teacher to lead, students become accustomed to the assignment, and less prepared for the creation of their own learning.

The most obvious way to create less teacher-student face time is to harness technology more effectively. Teachers simply need more time to become better. As Laura suggests, US teachers are face-to-face with students almost twice as long as teachers in many countries, including Japan (cited by Elizabeth Green in Jason's post). Yes, Japanese teachers practice extensive lesson study, practicing and refining lessons prior to teaching. Excellent strategy!

As far as the rest of the NBA analogy, the obvious response is the numbers game. The NBA collects the greatest 400 players in the world and pays them a small fortune; public education requires approximately 3.4 million teachers to serve students. NBA players have the luxury of extensive practice time, even with an 82 game schedule. And teaching 150 students is significantly more difficult and challenging than driving the lane.

Focus on the gradually shifting to a new kind of school experience where teachers have the opportunity to become better.


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