This past Monday, the Wall Street Journal posted an opinion piece by Fran Tarkenton in which he postulated what the NFL might be like if it had to play by what he called “teachers’ rules.” Tarkenton says:

Each player’s salary is based on how long he’s been in the league. 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’s argument is not particularly new—the idea of performance or merit pay for teachers has been around for at least 60 years—but it is increasingly popular with the public. No Child Left Behind created a system for rating and ranking schools and districts, and recently there has been a move in a few cities like Los Angeles and New York to extend that system to individual teachers. Never mind that the scores are flawed at best; to those who believe intuitively that linking teacher pay to teacher performance can only be a good thing, Tarkenton’s essay is like an interception that was returned 99 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Behind his arguments, however, are flawed assumptions and metaphors twisted to fit them. Let’s dissect his arguments and consider the real differences between the world of education and Tarkenton’s fantasy football.

  1. Salary schedules. Tarkenton derides a “union-created system [which] provides no incentive for better performance,” preferring a purely performance-based system of pay. But the NFL itself has a salary schedule, bargained collectively with the NFLPA, which, guess what, dictates the minimum salary a player must earn based on their years of performance. A rookie in 2011 will earn no less than $375,000, while after ten years, a player at the top of the scale earns a minimum of $910,000. Repeat: those are minimums.
  2. Funding. In 2009, all 32 NFL teams paid a combined $3.4 billion for player salaries. Revenues from stadium ticket sales for those teams were slightly over $7 billion for 1,700 players (53 per team). In contrast, according to the US Census Bureau, in 2009 there were more than 15,000 public school districts in the US, with almost $591 billion in revenue and $209 billion spent on 4.3 million teacher salaries. Thus, the education system has 469 times as many employers as the NFL but only 84 times the revenue paying 61 times the salaries for 2,500 times the employees.
  3. Supply and Demand. According to the NCAA, there are an estimated 317,000 high school seniors playing football in a given year. Of those, only 250 (or less than a tenth of a percent) will get drafted into the NFL. When you get rid of a “bad” football player, there is a long line of potential replacements ready to fill the slot. Teaching is not nearly as competitive: there are places in every state where teachers are so in demand that the federal government offers bonuses to people willing to teach there. Many positions remain unfilled, or are filled by underqualified staff.
  4. Results. In the NFL, evaluating quality is relatively straightforward. Teams with good players win, and teams with bad players lose. End of story. The same is actually roughly true in education: better learning happens where there are better teachers. But the analogy falls apart when you consider that the NFL is explicitly designed to elevate one “best” team every year at the expense of the other 31. But education’s goal is different: we want every child in every classroom to learn and meet a minimum standard of acceptable achievement. We won’t tolerate a competitive system where some kids win and most kids lose.
  5. Coaching. Tarkenton says that in the NFL, as in “every other profession: if you’re good, you get rewarded, and if you’re not, then you look for other work.” If only it were really true: every Sunday there are thousands of armchair quarterbacks who would be very quick to give their opinions about which players are the bums that should be rushed out the door. But the reality is that in the NFL, if you’re not good, you are coached, you get intensive training and assistance and the opportunity to work your butt off to get better. And you get repeated opportunities over multiple attempts to prove your value to the team before you are cut.
  6. Causality vs. Correlation. In the NFL, team scores are a direct result of the performance of the players on the field. Better players produce consistently better performances which result in consistently more wins. In education, although the teacher’s skills affect student learning, it is an indirect and fuzzy relationship. There are so many other factors involved that to load all of the responsibility and all of the consequences of the outcome onto one person is unreasonable and unfair. Correlation? Yes. Causal? Not so much.
  7. Continuous Improvement. There is an assumption in education that schools and teachers will get better and better every year with no dips, no slumps, no gaps, and no plateaus. This isn’t realistic, at least not where humans are involved. Even the best NFL players can have a game or two where things don’t go well. Spectacular teams can even crash and burn–just look at this year’s Philadelphia Eagles, who were widely believed to have assembled some of the nation’s best talent, and started their season 1-3.

Let’s imagine what the NFL would really be like if it played by current education rules. Every town in the US would be required to have a professional football team. Every team would get nine months of practice leading up to one and only one game. Every team in the league would be expected to win that game every year, and in fact would have to increase its score year after year, or be labeled a “failing team.” Every resident of the town would be required to attend every game, whether they wanted to or not, and the town would hold a referendum to determine ticket prices.

Every player on that team would be expected to score a minimum number of points during the game or be labeled a failing player. Players who whined that they didn’t have the support of their teammates, or who had a poor coach, or played for a team that didn’t have money for footballs, would be told that those were just excuses, and that if they really were good players they could overcome those challenges and win anyway.

On the other hand, if Tarkenton’s fantasy of teaching like football really did come true, then rookie teachers would make $375K. Maybe he’s onto something after all.