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The ’96 Draft

susan sterner kobe draft

Kobe Bryant, draft night Susan Sterner/AP

I listened to a podcast last week by a couple of basketball nuts who are missing the NBA games right now but won’t be deterred from talking about it fervently. With great excitement, they analyzed the 1996 NBA draft, and did a “redo” — they re-drafted the top 14 players based on how those players’ careers actually panned out. With the benefit of hindsight, the results are quite different. It’s fun to listen to stuff like this in this time as it doesn’t really matter, and there’s no doom-and-gloom. However, there’s something below the surface worth paying attention to as someone who cares about education. 

The ‘96 draft was noteworthy because of how badly the general managers of NBA teams at the time misevaluated the skills and projected contributions of the players in it. The podcasters point to Kobe Bryant — drafted 13th by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers — as an indicator of this GM shortsightedness. Over the next twenty years, Bryant would become one of the top players who ever played the game. Many who mourned Bryant’s death in January described him as transcendent. The 13th pick is usually for the caliber of player who is a starter for 5-6 years on your team — not a flashy spot, but consistent. Letting Bryant fall this far means that most of the general managers didn’t recognize what was in front of them. 

The context of that time matters. Bryant did not go to college and the year before, Kevin Garnett also made the leap from high school directly to the NBA. Basketball purists, which general managers typically are, were highly suspicious of Garnett and Bryant. To them, these young guys were “doing it wrong”: proper basketball players spent a few years in college to prove their worth before entering the NBA. Jumping straight to the NBA was shocking, even egotistical, and certainly disrespectful to the status quo. 

These front office experts couldn’t see past this blind spot of asking “who did these guys think they were?” to evaluate their talent objectively. Before these two skipped college, it had been twenty years since Moses Malone went right to the NBA from high school, so, for the GMs in the 90s almost none had working memory of this model for success. (Garnett wasn’t transcendent, but he became a top player for over a decade. He quickly gave the Timberwolves the legitimacy it lacked in the six years since the team was formed as an expansion franchise). 

In addition to not being able to evaluate Garnett and Bryant without bias, basketball officials at the time also couldn’t see that this was the start of a trend, not just a blip. In the time since, the NBA has been reshaped by a generation of younger, better prepared athletes who are ready to compete at the highest levels. We have the benefit of 24 years of examples to point to in order to recognize the gigantic shift in the league. Unfortunately, for those in positions of power in the NBA back then, the 12 GMs who didn’t select Kobe Bryant now look like total chumps.  

There are parallels in education. COVID has monumentally disrupted teaching and learning around the world. This is no blip — the impact will be long-lasting. However obvious the disruption is, it is not clear what we will learn from it or how we will decide to shape the future of education. Just as there was no model to shape the basketball executives’ thinking, so too do we lack an obvious model for education post-COVID. Education around the world is positioned for a big shift following the drastic measures imposed on us by closing schools and going to emergency remote learning so abruptly. 

Educators, students, schools are not just on a break from routines which we can all snap back into once we return to school houses around the world. Some of the true merits of learning together are emerging in ways that can’t be unseen. One of the widespread “aha” realizations is that learning is fundamentally social — we can’t expect to learn substantively without meaningful engagement and connection with one another. Similarly, there are parts of schooling that were strained before being expelled from our physical learning spaces. Some of what has been revealed: that grading virtual learning is quite different from previous forms of assessment, that solely focusing on content acquisition online isn’t sufficient if you want students to be engaged, that school rules which are purely about compliance quickly become obsolete. Additionally, questions about equity are visible in a new way, and they can’t be ignored.

Just as GMs needed a new perspective in the 1990s, our time requires those who can see and articulate a model of sustainable, equitable education. The stakes are much higher and the rewards are less glamorous than in hoops — can you imagine an educator being considered “transcendent” by the masses? Their internal motivation has to be strong enough to absorb the criticism that comes with attempting to go into uncharted space. There is no more important work though; our time craves those with the confidence to believe that they can make the leap away from what we once knew to be the status quo.