Merits of Demerits 3: Lessons From The Triangle Offense

I enjoyed recent comments from teachers Ines and Paul. I'll share them in a bit. First let me tell you a basketball tale.

There are 2 key ideas to absorb about the Triangle Offense.

1. It's been the key strategy of the 2 best NBA teams in recent memory. Michael Jordan's Bulls and Kobe Bryant's Lakers. Both coached by Phil Jackson.

2. Other NBA teams do not copy it.

Now think about No Excuses charter schools:

1. A very explicit and particular approach to school culture been the key strategy of many of the top 100 schools (as measured by test score gains) in the nation that serve mostly poor students (as measured by % whose families qualify for free lunch).

2. Other high poverty schools do not copy this approach (including most charters).

Chuck Klosterman writes on Grantland:

The Triangle offense has been, pretty much irrefutably, the single most dominant offensive attack (in any major sport) of the past 20 years. Since 1991, teams running the Triangle have won 11 of the 20 possible NBA titles. Obviously, that statistic is a little disingenuous: Those 11 championships involve only one head coach and are distributed between two dynastic teams (both of whom had greater talent than virtually anyone they faced). If you install Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant into any offense, you'll win 60 games. The Triangle was not the reason the Bulls won six titles and the Lakers won five. But the Triangle was what both teams used exclusively. It wasn't the explanation for their success, but it was central to their operation. It was a component of their dominance.

Which is why it's so strange that — today — not one team in the NBA uses the Triangle. It's a dead offense.

So why did it die?

If we learn why The Triangle is dead, we may learn why charter practices have NOT typically transferred to traditional high-poverty schools.

The easy (and lazy) answer is that no one uses the Triangle because it's too complex. As a rule, coaches are plagiarists. When a coach sees something that works, his natural inclination is to steal the idea — except, it seems, if the sport is basketball and the scheme is the Triangle. It's arcane and intimidating. Everyone seems to understand it a little, but almost no one understands it completely. It's both familiar and enigmatic: The Triangle is perhaps the only offensive set any casual NBA fan can identify by name, despite the fact that no one outside of Phil Jackson's coaching sphere can describe how it works with any clarity.

Educators happily steal everything, except the No Excuses school. It's both familiar and enigmatic -- a traditional educator knows basic things ("they're strict and have long hours"), but cannot explain the details and nuance of how a school like Edward Brooke or Roxbury Prep operates.

"People will sometimes look at a team and say, 'Those players won't work in the Triangle. The Triangle won't work here.' And that's so ridiculous," Jackson says. "People just have this attitude about the Triangle, like it's this pariah offense. That's totally wrong. It just takes a little time."

The No Excuses school remains a pariah in Ed Schools and districts. "Our teachers won't succeed with this model."

There are passes players are automatically supposed to make if they receive the ball at certain positions on the floor against specific defensive alignments. These decisions are called "automatics" (and those automatics are what the players need to mentally internalize).

No Excuses teachers row in unison -- there are many situations where they are expected to respond automatically, not come up with their own preferred solution.

Ines and Paul both point out that my using "demerit system" is a misnomer. Paul says:

I would argue that demerits don’t work as well with younger kids because they have a harder time with learning from delayed consequences. But that doesn’t mean there doesn’t have to be a clear system of some sort in place.

Yes, that's a good clarification. I mean: there are merits to an explicit consequence system that ALL teachers use.

Ines points out that in elementary, teachers more-or-less go it alone (25 kids all day long, except for the "specials" teachers like art and gym). Therefore, she argues, the need to have an explicit consequence system that ALL teachers use is less important than in middle and high school.

I'll concede the point. I still think it's valuable for all schools to "row in unison," even elementary schools.

For a couple years I sat on the board of directors for a school called Lee Academy. In its 4th year of operation, it got its first MCAS scores. It was 995th out of 1000th Massachusetts schools in reading. What was the issue? When I surveyed teachers there, the #1 issue they described was student discipline. And when you walked around, you saw hour after hour of teachers pleading with kids to stop their tiny little misbehaviors -- no single moment was that bad, but taken together, almost no productive academic work ever got done.

When asked why the Triangle is disappearing, Jackson suggested that it's a hard offense for an impatient person to teach to modern athletes: "The problem with the Triangle is that you have to teach the most basic, basic skills: Footwork.

No Excuses teachers work on a lot on the basics, too -- increasing ratio of student effort and engagement -- and far less on fancy curriculum, which I'd say is the equivalent of showy dribble drives to the hoop.

Yet it's possible that this willingness to express unvarnished opinions is part of the reason the Triangle is dying: Jackson is widely viewed as arrogant. He engenders jealousy among his rivals (and seems to enjoy doing so). His acolytes are few and far between.

Ah. I would say that people associated with No Excuses schools are often viewed in the same way by my friends in the districts -- arrogant. When I talk to various big-city superintendents around the country, I get that too: "Well you seem like a reasonably nice guy, but I don't like our city's charter leaders -- they're arrogant."

No Excuses educator: "How do we get tagged with arrogance? I'm always pointing out the flaws of our school."

Well, in part. But we also cultivate press about our test scores.

No Excuses educator: "We do that for survival. The Blob is always trying to kill charters. We need to get the message out."

I get it. Just saying.

What did we learn in Houston, where Roland tried to bring the tenets of No Excuses charters to 9 district turnarounds? Only high-dosage tutoring had obvious payoff. The day-to-day teaching didn't change much, at least as measured by test score gains.

* * *

There's one more thing.

MJ and Kobe resisted the Triangle because it requires them (as great players) to subvert some of their individuality. Two types of NBA players hate the Triangle: great scorers (Lebron, Pierce) and inefficient but popular scorers (Iverson, Carmelo). The idea of the ball moving quickly via pass subverts their desire to dominate the ball and end up on SportsCenter.

In the end, only Phil Jackson's force of will got those players to use the Triangle -- and obviously they benefitted enormously from the championships. As individual players, they are defined by their team championships.

From a great teacher's point of view, why buy into a schoolwide approach to motivating kids when your individual way works well for you?

To me, that's a killer flaw in the idea of "transferring the ideas" of No Excuses schools. Perhaps we could deal with all the emotional issues. But I can't come up with an easy way to trump the substantive, rational objection of a successful teacher who already runs an effective classroom. Why change? Change is hard.

Unlike with NBA greats who become known for championship rings, a star teacher is not measured by the success of her school. A star teacher doesn't necessarily benefit from a better school: the kids do, and therefore the teacher does in a roundabout way, but not in a direct way. Last year's Massachusetts Teacher of the Year came from a bad school (he has since left), where many teachers floundered. Presumably he had a way of doing things. For the sake of argument, if a new leader came in and created a school-wide system (even with buy-in), why would that star teacher want to change up what has been working?

Ines, who teaches at a traditional public school in NYC, made precisely this point a few days ago, in the comments section of this blog.

So, I agree with you on the demerit/merit system to a certain point. I think a schoolwide system works well with the right amount of buy-in from teachers, students and parents. Thoughtful implementation of these systems is crucial and needs a strong leader at the helm to make it happen. I guess my question becomes what happens to veteran teachers? What about teachers who have figured out ways to make their classrooms work? How do they continue to evolve in their understanding of student development if these systems are just handed to them?

And Paul writes:

Finally, I would mention, in reference to some earlier comments on the original post, that after 8 years of using demerits, my use of the system has changed as has my ability to manage with out it. I am way less likely to need to use a demerit now, but they are always there if other moves don’t stop the misbehavior (proximity, a look, etc.). I am most likely to give demerits for being unprepared than anything else these days. I think I give most demerits during breaks, lunch, transitions, etc…times when kids are not focused on a learning task.

Dearest reader: would you change what you do if it didn't help your individual production, and in some ways significantly annoyed you (because you were doing things in a new way, when the old way was just fine for you)...but aided your colleagues?

Or would you resist?

Again, the Triangle is not "the" explanation for the Bulls and Lakers success, but it is a central component of their dominance.

The No Excuses schoolwide approach to generating order and effort from kids is not "the" explanation for certain charters -- talented leaders and teachers is even more critical, great people willing to work unusually long hours, the unifying college success mission, and more -- but it's a central component of their success.