What Ted Lasso Can Teach About Schooling

Francesca Pickett is the nom de plume of a current senior federal education official who occasionally writes with me for the National Review. She’s an exquisitely trained social scientist, a trenchant observer of the human condition, and a terrific writer. Every so often, she feels compelled to share thoughts on educational questions that extend beyond her narrow fiefdom. I’m happy to accommodate. Today, she shares some thoughts on Apple TV’s hit series “Ted Lasso” and what it has to teach about schooling.

— Rick

I’m a sucker for sports movies. But when Apple TV launched its series Ted Lasso last year, I resisted. The premise seemed like a hackneyed celebration of ignorance. An American football coach hired to lead a British football (i.e., soccer) team because the owner wants to lose in order to spite her ex-husband? Response: eye roll. (Plus, I already saw this plot decades ago in the Charlie Sheen movie Major League). Fast forward a year and now, well, “Football is life!” (Disclaimer: There are some spoilers for the show ahead.)

In the show, we follow Coach Lasso as he and his assistant, Coach Beard, leave behind their Kansas football life to navigate the unfamiliar cultures of Britain and “real” football. Ted doesn’t assimilate. Rather, he changes the people and culture around him through his relentless kindness and optimism. From Ted’s first press conference as coach, journalists wonder whether his arrival — marked by ignorance and inexperience — constitutes an elaborate joke. Gradually, he wins both them and his team over with his folksy nature and his commitment to cheerfulness, even amid defeat.

In a typical rom-com, Ted’s football club, Richmond, would be winning on the basis of friendship and love. But in this show, they don’t. The problem? Panglossian encouragement is not a panacea. And here the show’s social commentary gets real for America’s schools, with its message that optimism and hope can’t make up for a lack of reflection, diligence, knowledge, expertise, and experience.

Before a big game, Ted tries to inspire his team with a speech that pays homage to the one Gene Hackman’s basketball coach delivers in the classic film “Hoosiers.” Hackman has his small-town team, intimidated by the colossal gym where they’ll contend for the state title, measure the court and hoop to see that they’re the same size as in the tiny gym where they’ve won all year.

Channeling Hackman’s coach, Ted tells his nervous players that the pitch at the legendary Wembley Stadium, where they’ll play before tens of thousands, is the same size as the one they play on at home. Turns out, it’s not. An assistant coach points out that this soccer field is much larger than the one they play on at home. Rather than inspire his team, Ted leads them onto the field convinced that they’re being led by a nice guy who has no idea what he’s doing.

Despite such blunders, Ted maniacally and repeatedly reassures the team, “That’s all right! We’re OK!” They’re not. In fact, the team wins only when Ted reaches out to someone who knows what he’s doing — a retired football legend and an insightful (alternatively certified) assistant coach.

Ted can’t develop winning strategies because he doesn’t understand the game and doesn’t learn. Even after a year, Ted is still baffled by the basics. He doesn’t comprehend why an offside doesn’t warrant a penalty and uses zero instead of nil for scoring. The Brits don’t let him get away with the errors, but Ted also doesn’t care to remember the lessons. After one loss, Ted proclaims, “Now it may not work out how you think it will. Or how you hope it does. But … it will all work out.” Yet the losses keep coming.

Meanwhile, the other American import, Coach Beard, demonstrates the power of learning, discipline, and humility. He pores over books about football, accumulating a fundamental understanding of the sport. Ted? He focuses on funny team names.

What’s frustrating is that the show seems reluctant to acknowledge the implications of what the viewer sees each week. Ted is only a hero if ignorance, lassitude, and a refusal to confront reality are heroic traits — but the show has yet to wrestle with any of that.

So much of this surfaces routine frustrations of life in American education, making one think of all those who ignore the science of reading in order to dwell on how reading makes kids feel. Sure, a third of the nation’s students are below basic in reading, but, “We’re OK!”

It brings to mind that, when we’re forced to ask what to do about students who’ve lost a year of instructional time to school closures, there are those who insist, “Don’t worry! It will all work out.” And others who seem more intent on making sure no one says “learning loss” than on doing something about it. And still others who, when assessments expose poor performance, spend more time attacking tests as wrong and unfair than on making sure kids are numerate and literate.

Education reform is so often developed and then driven by enthusiasts who seem to expect that their passion will carry the day. Yet, time after time, their reforms disappoint when they reach real classrooms and real students where the motivational speeches and high hopes can’t overcome impracticality and inattention to detail. Like Ted, they expect everyone to change but are reluctant to accept reality and change their own ideas.

In “Ted Lasso,” even as it celebrates Ted and excuses his failings, there are limits. When Ted nonchalantly dismisses the team’s string of losses, Coach Beard angrily corrects him. Performance matters, Beard insists. “Losing has repercussions. We lose, we get relegated.” Whatever Ted may wish, there are real consequences for failure.

Kindness, optimism, and good cheer are important things. They’re wonderful things. But they mustn’t be allowed to excuse ignorance, ineptitude, or failure, in sports or in schooling. Sometimes, at least, it seems like “Ted Lasso” knows it. We should, too.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.