- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 14, 2010

How is it that college and high school coaches are able to turn student-athletes into top drawer professionals, but many of our superintendents and chancellors can’t manage to churn out top-flight students?

Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee. Morgan Wootten of DeMatha Catholic High School. Steve Smith of Oak Hill Academy. Vivian Smith at Rutgers University. Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina. Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, Rick Pitino, John Thompson. You know the names, and you don’t have to suck up endless hours of ESPN broadcasts or subscribe to NBA or NFL TV to know that these coaches draw from a pool of students who overwhelmingly attend public secondary schools. Yet the coaches I mentioned, and hundreds of others I didn’t name, consistently succeed athletically where their classroom counterparts often do not academically.

Are coaches and educators such as, say, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, reading the same tea leaves?

Ms. Rhee correctly read the political tea leaves in 2007, when D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty plumbed her as schools chief, and she accepted the challenge. But something happened between the time Ms. Rhee took over schools in June 2007 and Wednesday, when she announced her resignation.

First, give her credit, though. As Ms. Rhee began to implement her brand of reform, she became a “Wonder Woman” of education reform, tying teachers’ evaluations to student performance, collaborating with union leaders to reach a labor contract that was accepted by 80 percent of teachers union members and continuing to close and remodel aged facilities. She also reached out to nonprofits that are willing to finance a pilot merit-pay project.

The national spotlight always shone on her.

Coaches know their success hinges on their players and their assistant coaches. Theirs is a team thing.

Athletes who participate in sports such as marathons and bicycling, don’t necessarily think “team.” Indeed, their goal is a solo one — to leave the competition in the dust.

That’s certainly what Mr. Fenty accomplished in September 2006, when he pulled away from a pack of Democrats and won every city precinct in the primary that year.

Coaches think short and long term, and the successful ones, who mount winning seasons and win championships, are constantly scouting and recruiting, and designing and readjusting strategies based on their competitors.

Did Mr. Fenty and Ms. Rhee do the same? Mr. Fenty’s loss in September and Ms. Rhee’s resignation this week provide the answer.

Successful coaches aren’t camera shy, but they go about their business in an entirely different manner than a media darling.

Certain press conferences are mandatory for players and coaches.

But what’s most important is that old cliche: It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

Well, for coaches, how you play the game determines whether you win or lose.

Now, with Ms. Rhee on her way out the door, Naya Henderson, the lead negotiator on the D.C. schools-Washington Teachers Union contract, has become the interim schools chief.

To her and Ms. Rhee’s credit, D.C. students are showing measurable progress. But the city still falls way short when it comes to preparing students for jobs and careers.

The D.C. dropout and illiteracy rates are maddeningly high, and too many of our 18-to-21-year-olds still get caught up in the juvenile-justice system instead of in the hands of a Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut.

The interim chancellor needs to use her bully pulpit to tell parents, teachers and students that a solid education takes teamwork. Messages like that don’t take a national spotlight, but results do.

Both teachers and D.C. leaders are giving Ms. Henderson a thumbs-up.

Still, here’s hoping Ms. Henderson implements a new strategy for students and athletes alike. At the very least, she will need a winning playbook.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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