Education Needs a Plan Like the 49ers

I watched football this past weekend with the intent of writing my weekly SJI column on the lessons the NFL divisional playoffs can give us about improving public education. Fortunately, I was up close and personal for the historic victory at “The Stick,” watching the 49ers beat the Saints on Saturday with my son, Zack, as a gift for his 30th birthday.

Here are some lessons educators and leaders can learn from this past NFL weekend:

On Expectations
• Winning is easier when professional athletes have coaches and large groups of the community believing in their abilities.
• The chances for achievement increase exponentially when students have teachers and a school that believe in their ability to learn with high expectations.

On Mentor-Pupil Relationships
• Coach Jim Harbaugh truly believed in quarterback Alex Smith’s overall ability from their first encounter. The coach gave him renewed confidence to believe he can win. After several years of contempt from fans, Smith has shown that anything is possible with excellent coaching and demonstrated confidence—maybe even winning the Super Bowl.
• A great teacher must inspire his students. He must demonstrate confidence in his students’ ability to achieve at the highest of levels. Students should never have mediocre teachers, especially in successive years. (This is, of course, up to management, or principals.) If teachers believe in each of their students’ ability to learn at the highest of levels, learning goals are accomplished and test scores increase. Think “Stand and Deliver” and Jaime Escalante.

On Management-Mentor Relationships
• Successful coaches must have support from their general managers and owners.
• Successful teachers must have the support of their principals to make things happen. Jamie Escalante’s principal, Henry Gradillas, supported his efforts.

On Hard Work and Planning
• Bringing an ethic of hard work and planning to the playing field each and every day increases the likelihood of good to great results. The Super Bowl for the Niners and Baltimore Ravens is within reach. Both teams have Harbaughs as coaches. Is that a coincidence?
• Schools, teachers and parents must preach that hard work pays dividends. Planning and accomplishing personal goals is a ticket to increased success in grades and overall achievement. Is it a coincidence that some schools consistently outperform others?

On Incentive Packages
• Alex Smith earned a $2.5 million dollar incentive package after Saturday’s win. There’s no way to know for sure if the incentive package was a motivator for him to do the extraordinary in the last four minutes of Saturday’s game, but I don’t think it hurt his effort.
• Even though the research might not correlate that merit or performance-pay for teachers increases student performance, I would say teacher incentive packages could have a desirable effect on student learning, if not solely related to increasing test scores.

On Evidence-Based Decision Making
• The 49ers’ front office and coaching staff took enormous steps this past offseason toward clarity and not ambiguity. They used the evidence of the last several years to determine changes in play calling on offense and defense. It appears that paying close attention to some key factors like turnover-to-takeaway ratio, penalties, special teams performance, blocking schemes, and playcalling make a huge difference if done with architectural intent.
• Public education, schools, and districts must pay close attention to the key factors that effect overall student performance. Examples include teacher quality, leadership, data analysis, using that analysis to drive instructional strategies, curriculum mapping, discipline, and school culture/climate. If done with clarity of purpose, like erecting a monumental edifice, then high degrees of success will become the norm.

On Feb. 5, the Super Bowl will receive enormous national and international attention; unfortunately, far more attention than we pay public education in America. I hope the 2012 presidential race will turn its attention to public education as the top national security issue for America. So far, it is barely mentioned by the Republican candidates. Irrespective of this, I will be rooting for the Niners to go all the way and Alex Smith to be the Super Bowl MVP, if for no other reason than they have a plan.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Another message:  the NFL doesn’t owe its prosperity to the government, except when cities insist on subsidizing stadiums.  Go to the voucher system and schools already using these principles will flourish without all the sturm und drang one finds in the public education monopoly.  The rest will get on board quickly.

  2. It reminds me of what former Gov. Schwarzenegger said he wanted teachers to get so-called “combat pay,” a … acknowledged was controversial because it equates some schools to war zones.
    Yes,public education needs a plan . There’s already too many incentives $$$$ . We have enough great teachers .
    I think the problem with public education is that we don’t have enough good school Principals , or Superintendents . If you improve the coaches , sure enough you improve the game and get winning scores!!

  3. In the first place, congratulations to your son and to you on the celebration of his 30th birthday! It’s one he’ll never forget. What a game!
    As to the substance of this article- I thought it was very good. You and I might differ in our interpretations of the significance of Harbaugh’s coaching success, what lessons can be learned, and how they might be applied to the realm of education, but I like the fact that you recognize this success story as an opportunity to learn something. I’ve been pondering it myself since about halfway through the season. So there you go. Common ground. Whodathunkit?!
    I agree with your take on the Harbaugh/Smith relationship. The positive value of the coaches belief in his quarterback can’t be denied. But let’s not ignore the statements of Vernon Davis who attributed his own career resurgence and positive attitude to the kick in the pants he got from Harbaugh’s polar opposite Mike Singletary. So maybe every coach in the NFL has their own style that works for them and maybe not all players respond the same to the same stimulus. Also don’t forget that Harbaugh had the freedom to get rid of players, such as Braylon Edwards who refused to conform to his style. “No Player Left Behind” doesn’t work in professional football so where do we get the idea that we can overcome the detrimental effect on the classroom of disruptive, uncooperative students?

    There are 32 head coaches and every year only one will win the Coach of the Year award. This year it will probably be Harbaugh. But next year it might be somebody with a completely different style. He’ll have at least one thing in common with Coach Harbaugh. He’ll have been given the freedom to coach in his own unique style that suits his own personality. He won’t be trying to conform to the dictates of some ‘best practices’ handbook authored by a group of distant NFL bureaucrats. And it would be foolish of the other 31 team owners to expect their own head coaches to change their ways to copy the current Coach of the Year.
    Let coaches coach. Let teachers teach. If you’re not willing to live with the results then get rid of them and try another. Maybe that’s the lesson.

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