Former Viking QB Fran Tarkenton tackles teacher pay system

Fran Tarkenton, the former Minnesota Vikings quarterback known for his scrambling ability, wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, attacking the way teachers are paid.

He asks readers to imagine that NFL players are paid in the same way that teachers are. In this imaginary league:

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.

Let’s face the truth about this alternate reality: The on-field product would steadily decline. Why bother playing harder or better and risk getting hurt?

No matter how much money was poured into the league, it wouldn’t get better. In fact, in many ways the disincentive to play harder or to try to stand out would be even stronger with more money.

He says that’s the problem with the current education system in the U.S.:

Teachers’ salaries have no relation to whether teachers are actually good at their job — excellence isn’t rewarded, and neither is extra effort. Pay is almost solely determined by how many years they’ve been teaching. That’s it. After a teacher earns tenure, which is often essentially automatic, firing him or her becomes almost impossible, no matter how bad the performance might be. And if you criticize the system, you’re demonized for hating teachers and not believing in our nation’s children.

That system needs change, he says:

The results we’re looking for are students learning, so we need to reward great teachers who show they can make that happen—and get rid of bad teachers who don’t get the job done. It’s what we do in every other profession: If you’re good, you get rewarded, and if you’re not, then you look for other work. It’s fine to look for ways to improve the measuring tools, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Our rigid, top-down, union-dictated system isn’t working. If results are the objective, then we need to loosen the reins, giving teachers the ability to fulfill their responsibilities to students to the best of their abilities, not to the letter of the union contract and federal standards.

Tarkenton played in the NFL, with the Vikings and the Giants, from 1961-1978, long before any of today’s students, and many of their teachers, were born.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/04/2011 - 10:32 am.

    Mr Tarkenton’s ability to throw a football and run around real fast doesn’t appear to have translated to thoughtfulness in matters of public policy. The analogy is silly and the editorial is full of strawmen. Good enough for the Wall Street Journal.

  2. Submitted by Jill Trescott on 10/04/2011 - 11:00 am.

    Fran, this is a great idea! Start every teacher with that $340,000 a year the worst player in the NFL gets paid. Anything above that would be strictly based on performance.

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 10/04/2011 - 11:41 am.

    I agree with Chuck (#1).

    He’s comparing apples to oranges.

    He might just as well ask if teachers were paid like NFL players, where they get higher salaries if they can run faster, kick farther or pass better than other teachers.

    Absurd? You bet. Just as absurd as his WSJ comparison.

  4. Submitted by David Greene on 10/04/2011 - 11:47 am.

    What Jill said.

    It’s shameful to have a guy who benefited mightily from union representation go off an attack teachers for trying to do the same.

  5. Submitted by Bruce Leier on 10/04/2011 - 01:34 pm.

    Definitely one of Fran’s sillier moments. He never did win the Super Bowl did he?

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/04/2011 - 01:37 pm.

    “Mr Tarkenton’s ability to throw a football and run around real fast doesn’t appear to have translated to thoughtfulness in matters of public policy. The analogy is silly and the editorial is full of strawmen.”

    Since you intimate that you’ve put in the brain work, chuck, can you share your thoughts a bit further?

    In what way, exactly, is the analogy “silly”?

    Do we not want teaching “superstars” for our kids? Would fans not care about “no cut” clauses for players employed by their favorite teams?

    Personally, I have to say that the arguments I read here against Tarkenton’s conclusion revolve principally around not liking it as opposed to being able to provide a valid argument against it…but I’m certianly willing to entertain one, should you be able to mount it.

    Jill, your point would be valid if poor, and mediocre teachers were weeded out through a “farm system”. That is to say that even the least talented NFL player was a proven standout in collegiate sports.

    When only teachers that have moved students into position of recognized successful academic achievement get hired, I’ll join your call for minimum six figure salaries.

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/04/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    From 1999:

    “Since retiring from the NFL in 1978, Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton has portrayed himself as an “entrepreneurial dynamo,” to borrow a phrase from the jacket of his 1997 book, What Losing Taught Me About Winning. As the title suggests, he has built a thriving career by peddling the notion that his “finely tuned business acumen” (that jacket again) is something you, too, can acquire if you heed his pearls of wisdom.

    Last week Tarkenton’s business reputation suffered a big blow. He agreed to pay $154,187 in fines after the Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of helping direct a multimillion-dollar fraud. Tarkenton did not acknowledge wrongdoing, but the SEC alleges that his software firm, KnowledgeWare, claimed $8 million in phony revenues in 1993 and ’94. Toward the end of each quarter, when it became apparent that the company wouldn’t reach its revenue goals, the SEC says, KnowledgeWare sent products to resellers and other customers, then booked those transactions as income even though the customers were told they wouldn’t have to pay unless they made a sale. That’s accounting fraud, designed to hide a struggling company’s true condition from investors.

    Even before this slap on the wrist from the feds, the three-time Super Bowl loser’s reputation as a businessman was wildly inflated. KnowledgeWare, which Tarkenton founded in the early ’80s and took public in ’89, had degenerated shockingly by the early ’90s. “As a software executive, Fran was in way over his head,” says Mitchell Kertzman, the former CEO of Powersoft, a competitor. Industry insiders say KnowledgeWare put out a series of products that simply didn’t work well, something Tarkenton never acknowledged. When Tarkenton had a chance to unload the company in ’92 for $360 million, or $23 a share, he spurned the offer and held out for more than $40 a share. When he was finally forced to sell two years later, he got only $4.77 a share. But Tarkenton took care of himself, negotiating a $300,000 annual consulting fee with the new owner, Sterling Software of Dallas. He also received $6.4 million in Sterling stock options. (He no longer has any relationship with Sterling.)”

  8. Submitted by Jeff Urbanek on 10/04/2011 - 02:06 pm.

    As a fan, I loved to watch Tarkenton’s elusive scrambling, even though my team continually was victimized. But this just screams “attention grabbing ploy.” What has Tarkenton done since leaving the Vikings that merits the Wall Street Journal? I might understand if this was a new argument — but it is the same tired one that conservatives have trotted out for years. As others here have pointed out, comparing teacher salaries to a profession where the minimum is salary is 10 times the average teacher salary, and the top salary is off the charts, is well foolhardy. A football player gets seniority after the first contract. A teacher gets it gradually, often having contracts locked in at 1 and 2 percent increases, or no increases at all over a span of time. Teachers have to constantly take new courses (yes they actually had to finish college) and are required to attend inservices, etc. over their much ballyhooed summer vacations. Considering many work 12 hour days during the school year the actual hours put in by teachers easily exceed a 40 hour per week job.

    The one thing that is the same between teachers and athletes? Everyone is an armchair quartback and feels compelled to question the team’s play, decisions, etc. And everyone, apparently is an expert teacher (including some ex football players).

    Maybe he needs to sit down and chat with another ex-Viking first. Randall McDaniel actually went from playing football to teaching elementary students. He has established foundations and can be regularly seen at community and educational events. Strangely I haven’t seen McDaniel screaming about the inequities of the teacher pay system.

    Maybe when you walk the walk first, Mr. Tarkenton, you should write critical editorials. You were a great quartback and apparently a successful entrepreneur. But business does not equal education. Once you have established some credentials in the education profession, then I will listen to your ideas on education.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/04/2011 - 02:27 pm.

    Over the course of my 30 classroom years, 1966-1996, I was paid just a bit less – in total – than the minimum salary of an NFL player for 16 games. Since his retirement, no doubt amply compensated because of his Players Association membership, Mr. Tarkenton has obviously developed an affinity for the cheap shot.

    Let’s turn Mr. Tarkenton’s egregious insult on its head and apply a similar strategy to the NFL quarterback…

    Let’s evaluate and pay quarterbacks on the basis of offensive possessions that lead to a touchdown.

    Let’s publish in the ‘Strib on Monday morning’s front page the number of times the quarterback failed to lead the team to a touchdown, with details of each possession and why it succeeded or failed.

    I can hear the howls of indignation already. “But whether we score a touchdown depends upon everyone doing their job perfectly, and the opponents providing an opening!”


    All a teacher can do is offer the knowledge and skills that s/he has. The teacher has no control over how long or how often they’ll be in contact with a student, nor the student’s home life, nor the student’s friends, nor the student’s physical health, nor the student’s emotional state. The teacher also depends upon the others in the system, from administrators to janitors, to do their jobs properly as well, and if parents aren’t supportive, or aren’t present, it’s all much more difficult. The teacher has no control over how the student will be evaluated by the state, nor how that evaluation will be presented to the student, her parents, or the general public. In the end, the teacher also has no control over whether or not the student accepts the offer of knowledge and skills being made.

    Mr. Tarkenton should stick to talking about football. As Chuck has said in #1, the analogy is silly, the editorial full of straw men, and sadly, it’s not atypical of the Wall Street Journal.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/04/2011 - 04:16 pm.

    “Let’s publish in the ‘Strib on Monday morning’s front page the number of times the quarterback failed to lead the team to a touchdown, with details of each possession and why it succeeded or failed.”

    You’re kidding…right?

    “Analysis: Numbers tell the Donovan McNabb story: Vikings quarterback doesn’t add up”

    Again, one can conclude that the lack of a valid counter argument (to say nothing of the red herrings) leaves Fran with a touchdown on this point.

  11. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/04/2011 - 04:17 pm.

    Mr Swift (#6) –

    To summarize, what constitutes sound performance by a football player is largely unambiguous and the subject of general consensus. Every second of a player’s performance can be reviewed, by his “supervisors” and the whole world, in slow motion. There is no ideological context and there are very few reasons why those with the authority to “fire” a player would wish to do so for reasons other than performance.

    Conversely, there is no consensus as to what constitutes sound performance by a teacher. It is subjective and deeply contested ideologically. It is not directly observable and must be measured by surrogates that are just as contested. It involves working with the most heterogenous raw materials (children), each of whom comes with neurological and environmental features that are an essential black box and for whom “learning” is something that will manifest itself in different ways and maybe not for some time. Teachers are subject to bureaucratic and ideological obstacles that can greatly undermine teaching and can be imposed at will. Because there is no consensus about what constitutes performance and performance cannot be directly observed, those with the ability to “fire” can do so without any effective monitoring to “normalize” their decisions. Because performance cannot be observed, indirect methods such as testing must be used. These in themselves are just as contested and create undesirable consequences such as incentives for teachers to want to teach in communities where children are unburdened with environmental, nutritional and other deficits that can make demonstrating “performance” much more challenging. And the whole act of teaching occurs in an environment where reasons abound for teachers to be “fired” for reasons unrelated to performance, ranging from the petty motives of principals and school district personnel to the amassed interests in getting privatized hands on the public resources now deployed for public education.

    Mr. Swift, the above is just a hasty problem statement and all I have the time to contribute. There are well-accepted, non-ideological analytical frameworks to take the matter further, and given your demonstrated resourcefulness and intellectual curiousity, I’m sure you can carry on from here.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/04/2011 - 04:23 pm.

    I’ve got a question for all you union defenders.

    If the NFL were to offer a special deal in which any newly drafetd player that agreed to never get paid more than a small yearly cost of living increase over the minimum salary would get a “no cut” guarantee; how many players do you think would sign up for it?

    Case closed.

  13. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/04/2011 - 04:41 pm.

    I wonder how well tarkenton would have done with Mr swift in his front line’? Or maybe swift could have run the ball Ala Boomer. As she said this week, “nobody makes it on their own.”

  14. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 10/04/2011 - 07:39 pm.

    Paying teachers for performance
    How is performance determined? To School Boards and Superintendents it might be … are they compliant? Good. Do they make waves? Bad. To some students it’s… are they easy? Others might see more clearly who actually teaches them something.

    Rating teachers is so subjective, that it is meaningless. There are really bad teachers out there … lazy, bigoted, stupid … and there are really great teachers out there. What method could possibly reveal which are which?

    The problems only multiply when you take an evaluation that can only be subjective and try to make it objective. That’s what Obama and Bush and the rest have tried … standardized testing of students to judge their teachers and their schools. Might work for lower forms of math, but doesn’t work at all in the complex sciences like history and anthropology – or even in the pseudo-sciences like economics and psychology.

  15. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/04/2011 - 08:01 pm.

    I stand corrected, and apologize for not providing examples. Tarkenton’s analogy is silly for many reasons, but just for starters, while education can certainly be fun, even joyful, its purpose is not entertainment. It does not depend upon eye-hand coordination of special acuteness, nor does physical size usually make any real difference in terms of performance. We generally assume that all the players on a given team have the same goal in mind – winning the game. No such “common goal” assumption can be made about a classroom of children. And one I can’t leave off even an abbreviated list is that there’s no generally-accepted standard for measuring teacher ability. Currently, the public has been persuaded – by private companies that stand to profit from their use – that standardized test scores provide the necessary shorthand, but the public has been misled. What’s being reported in the media are not teacher test scores, they’re student test scores. Unless it can be shown that the student was never exposed to the concepts or information being asked for on the test, that the teacher never presented that information or those ideas in class, the failure is the student’s, not the teacher’s. It’s certainly not “the school’s.”

    All a teacher can do is offer. It’s up to the student to accept, and as Mr. Holtman has pointed out, there are numerous reasons why a student might not be ready or willing to accept the offer. Fran Tarkenton is as qualified to propose standards for teacher pay as he is qualified to develop design standards for heavy industrial equipment. In short, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    I taught a Rhodes Scholar and several graduates of Harvard, plus a couple who did quite well at Stanford. I also managed to get quite a number of adolescents through American history who had absolutely no interest in anything academic, much less history, and they’d have regarded college as needlessly expensive torture. I got them through my course without lowering my own standards of what was acceptable work. They earned their passing grades, even if those grades weren’t “A’s.”

    I feel certain there are many Minnesota teachers who’ve done just as well, and been equally fortunate. Let us know when you’re ready to start that campaign for six-figure salaries, Mr. Swift.

  16. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 10/05/2011 - 03:24 am.

    Perhaps there would be more consensus on what makes a teacher effective, if there were solid incentives for effectiveness. As Fran said, in the current system it doesn’t matter. Teachers and the university professors who train them can afford to be intellectually lazy and blame everyone else.

    Of course unions have done so much good for the American way of life. 100 years ago many companies treated their workers like slaves. But we’re at a point where unions can take the lead in building a stronger America again. We’ve got a lot that is broken and we need to work on solutions instead of complaints.

    What we hear about “no child left behind” is complaints instead of solutions, just as every other attempt at accountability was torn down before.

    We’ll all live better when more of us ate leading by example.

  17. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/05/2011 - 10:40 am.

    Took your logic out for a spin this morning, Ray…told my boss that there was just no quantitative or qualitative measure our customer could use to judge the equipment we contracted to deliver, so I thought I’d take the afternoon off.

    Whoo boy…didn’t go well.

    I guess teaching is so unique there is just nothing else comparable it in the universe…I have to guess of course, since there’s no way to actually compare it to anything else in the universe.

  18. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 10/05/2011 - 08:46 pm.

    Steve was quite a turbulent child. He really didn’t care about school for a very long time — until the 4th grade, to be precise. That year, his teacher was Imogene “Teddy” Hill.

    “She was one of the saints of my life. She taught an advanced fourth grade class, and it took her about a month to get hip to my situation. She bribed me into learning.”

    She did bribe him, with candy and $5 bills from her own money. He quickly became hooked — so much so that he skipped the 5th grade and went straight to middle school, namely Crittenden Middle School.

    From “Steve Jobs: A biography” by Romain Moisescot
    Downloaded December 4, 2010, from

    Steve Jobs. He didn’t run to excuses and entitlements. He led with innovation and demanding high expectations. He told his staff where they stood, and he rewarded achievement. He clearly succeeded.

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