Why Coach John Calipari’s “Players First” Philosophy is Spot-On

Although much-admired and well-loved by University of Kentucky basketball fans, UK Coach John Calipari has been stirring up a little controversy in Lexington recently. In the past few weeks, he has twice told the media he would rather place players in the NBA than win a national basketball championship.

Oh, the shame of it!

This idea is actually nothing new for Coach Calipari. He’s been talking about it in one form or another since the day he placed five players in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft. He called it “the biggest day in the history of the Kentucky program.”

Coach Calipari’s “Players First” philosophy, which places a priority on player development, even over team achievement, also shines through in his willingness to work with “one and done” players. The constant recruiting and teaching that must take place when players shuttle through the UK basketball program at a rapid pace drains the time and attention of Calipari and his staff. But they shoulder on because it enables them to meet the needs and affect the dreams of two to three times more athletes than the average college basketball coaching staff.

At the heart of this mini-controversy over Calipari’s “Players First” philosophy is some emerging truth about the changing nature of college for all students, not just elite athletes. Simply put, nobody goes to college anymore for the experience. They don’t go to college to learn new things, explore interesting ideas, make new friends, build character, mature, or get the so-called “liberal arts education.” They don’t even go to college to win a national championship.

Today, students go to college to get a ticket to a well-paying career. Period. Nobody is interested in spending $50,000-$100,000 (or much more) to make themselves a better person. They can enter the military for that. Or the Peace Corp. Or the ministry. Those pursuits don’t take your money. Some even pay YOU to become a great person — “the best you can be.” Today’s college students are looking for something far less noble, but much more practical. They want jobs.

Calipari gets it. While he appropriately appreciates and respects the UK fan base, the university administration, and even his own personal aspirations to win athletic contests and championships, they are not what comes FIRST. In Calipari’s world, players come first. It should be the same for all people who say they care about children, especially those who get paid to do so.

We could argue all day about whether the glories of a liberal arts education were EVER a reason for young people to give up so much of their time and money. But, in today’s economic realities, colleges need to get over their high-minded ideas about any worth they have apart from their ability to place students in well-paying jobs. Other career preparation models are looming on the horizon, many of them supported by our nation’s most prestigious employers, and they are ready to “disrupt” higher education with a vengeance. Colleges and universities—places that pride themselves on building brains—better get smart enough themselves to stay one step ahead of the people and programs poised to replace them. They better get at least as smart as a basketball coach from Kentucky.

Calipari is being pragmatic, relevant, and correct when he promotes his “Players First” philosophy. When he says the careers of his players are what comes first and matters most to him, he is speaking the language of the only two things that should really matter in higher education — the students and the markets. If colleges aren’t meeting the needs and desires of students, or they are doing it apart from the demands of today’s markets, then they will ultimately fade away and fail. Simply put, colleges will survive going forward ONLY if they prove vital to the end game, which is job placement.

At the University of Kentucky, students are playing basketball to prepare for a career in the NBA. At the same time, the NBA is looking to Kentucky to fill its rosters. It’s a perfect fit, an example of how universities should be working closely with professional communities of all types to understand their needs and then train and prepare students accordingly.

This past season, Calipari held a pre-season combine for NBA teams to view his team. More than 90 NBA scouts and front office executives showed up. Those that missed it could watch it on television. Some people whined that such events would destroy amateur athletics. But here’s what I want to know: Why do we value amateur athletics so much in college anyway? Isn’t the purpose of college to prepare individuals to be professionals, not amateurs? Or are colleges only allowed to prepare students to be professional businessmen, teachers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, artists, etc. What is it about professional athletics that makes universities work so hard to make sure students remain amateurs?

To promote the legitimacy of professional athletics as a career option, the University of Kentucky should strongly consider two bold moves. First, it should establish a sports performance major at UK. This will get the university officially on record as an institution committed to moving elite athletes from amateur status to professional status. Second, UK should  reconsider its relationship with the NCAA. It should begin a serious discussion with all interested parties about a new (or improved) university athletic association whose sole mission is NOT to keep university athletes competing at the lowest levels possible for as long as possible with as little compensation as possible. The amateur mission of the NCAA is at odds with the career aspirations of many student athletes and completely out-of-sync with the overall purpose of higher education in the first place.

There’s a lot of angst among colleges and universities right now because everyone knows student and market demands are quickly changing. At schools where college athletics are merely extra-curricular—-a hobby for players and entertainment for fans—the future remains unclear. Will amateur athletic programs even survive?

Calipari has gotten way out in front of that question by not permitting Kentucky Basketball to be irrelevant and amateurish. He has not allowed his program to be wholly defined by the results of a amateur basketball tournament and has insisted on measuring the success of the program by the number of players getting jobs in the NBA. He will not let the general public, even his beloved Big Blue Nation, forget that he will always put the players need to develop and succeed at the next level ahead of the fan base’s need to win and be entertained.

In doing so, he has been responsible and right. He’s also been incredibly successful at his mission. After all, is there any college program, of any kind, at any place, getting a higher percentage of students to the highest levels of their chosen career fields at a higher rate of speed?

If the nation’s colleges and universities hope to be even half as successful as Calipari and UK Basketball at meeting the career aspirations of its students, they should start putting “students first.” If they do, their futures will become a lot less precarious.

Until next time…be fearless.

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The Venerable “College Search”

As students enter their junior and senior years of high school, one of the things parents start talking about is the venerable “college search.” That’s when parents, homeschool parents included, pack their high school-aged kids in a car and start driving them around the country, trying to find the perfect fit of student and school.

And that’s when I ask, “What in the world are you searching for?”

I don’t really ask it out loud, I just wonder it inside my head. But, I’ll ask it now: Why do homeschool parents who embrace the value of a close-knit family work so hard to send their kids away to college?

Our modern society is so mixed-up. Somehow we’ve gotten in our heads that parents raise children and, if they do it well, children leave the nest and become totally independent creatures. They go away to college, establish a great career, make a lot of money, and start a brand new family. The more independent and separated the child is from the parents, the more well-adjusted, or so society seems to think.

I think differently.

The family structure is the most practical and powerful structure in which a person can and should build his life. It is the place where people love you the most. It is the place where people understand and can relate to you the most. It is the place where people can normally and easily find common ground on which to live, work and carry out the functions of daily life. Practically speaking, family members can help each other with housing, child care, financial concerns, educational and spiritual needs. and much more. Many work together or establish businesses together. And, in modern society, where people struggle to find the time to establish good friendships, strong family relationships provide needed systems of support across all areas of life, including recreation and leisure.

Sending your children away to college is the first step of breaking down a strong, practical family structure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about a lack of love. Families that live and work apart from each other love each other as much as those that live close. But the physical separation denies family members many of the practical benefits of a close-knit family.

I didn’t really understand the impact of having family close until my older children made the decision to attend a college just 15 minutes from our home. After a few years, it became immediately apparent that this had been a good choice. Here’s the advantages of choosing a college close to home:

Relationships with family, both immediate and extended, remain close and can be strengthened during the college years.

Relationships with high school friends can remain in tact.

Church relationships with peers and pastor remain uninterrupted.

Children can partner with family members for work projects or work in the family business while in college.

Relationships made in college (through school or work) have a greater likelihood of continuing beyond college graduation.

Career and work placements after college will more likely be in the area in which your family lives.

The likelihood of meeting and marrying a person who lives near your family increases greatly.

During college, all three of our older children worked in our family business, participated in a variety of work and civic projects with us, continued to go to our church, and took part in extended family dinners on a regular basis. Their younger siblings got to attend their college soccer games, celebrate holidays and personal achievements at their sides, stay overnight in their dorm rooms, and meet and get-to-know college friends when they stopped by our house for food or a dip in the pool.

Our two oldest children settled in our town after graduation (our third is still in college), enabling our daughter to meet, marry, and settle down with a man who is also from our town. Our oldest son is a full-time employee in our primary family business, our college-aged son works part-time for us while in college, and all three of our adult children are partners with us in secondary family-owned businesses. I’ve simply never understood why families who get along well are so anxious to get away from each other during the college years when there is so much to be gained by staying together.

Although my oldest son, Zac, lived on his own for a short time after college, he soon found he could save money and prepare better for his future by moving back home. This worked (and continues to work well) on our end too because we often need an extra set of hands with our younger children. We also need someone to watch the house and take care of our animals when we travel.

In fact, we have so appreciated Zac’s help at home, this last year we remodeled two rooms over our garage into an apartment in hopes of keeping the mutually-beneficial living arrangement going for as long as possible. The world may think this is a weird scenario, but only because it is blinded by current societal norms and can’t relate to multi-generational families who actually get along well enough to live under the same roof as adults. Only mature, well-adjusted people who are respectful of others can share homes. And, in the current economy and with our busy lifestyles, people who can share the expenses and responsibilities of a home are truly blessed.

Our daughter, Kelsey, lived at home after she graduated from college until she married our son-in-law, Michael. What was one of Mike’s biggest selling points as a potential son-in-law to me? At 28 years old, Mike still lived at home with his parents. As did his 23-year-old twin siblings. I knew that close-knit families beget close-knit families and that’s what I wanted for my daughter.

Mike and Kelsey have been married for a year now. They live just 10 minutes from our home and we see them often. As you might expect, they are also close to Mike’s parents, who live just five minutes away from their home. In fact, both sets of parents have become good friends, as well as both sets of siblings, and we’ve established an even larger family network among us.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good reasons to go away college. But those reasons must be balanced with the understanding that many of the positive benefits of family relationships are being put at risk if children locate away from the family home base.

It seems like a lot of parents, even homeschooling parents, fall victim to “the college search” as a rite of passage and don’t consider the consequences adequately, even when the sobering facts about the benefits (or lack of) of a college degree are called into question. Consider these staggering facts about college:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 27 percent of college graduates are working in a career field related to their college major.

Of those workers employed in their chosen career fields, a Harris survey conducted for the University of Phoenix showed that more than half wanted to change their careers. 

Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that almost half of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that don’t even require a four-year degree. 

While a college degree may still be worth something in our society, seeking out the perfect school with the perfect program has little long-term value anymore. Perhaps students should focus less on finding the perfect college and commit to something of far more lasting value, which is continuing to build a beneficial and unshakable family support system during their college years. That’s something worth searching for.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Why I Homeschool My Children Through High School

For the past 13 years, I’ve been homeschooling one of my children through their high school years. I’ve also taught hundreds of other homeschooled high school students in co-op settings. I’m convinced high school homeschooling is far superior to sending children to public or private high schools. Here’s why I homeschool my children through high school:

I homeschool my children through high school for the same reasons I homeschooled my children prior to high school. Because it works.

I have never understood why some homeschooling parents quit at 9th grade and send their children to traditional schools. Do the benefits of homeschooling suddenly disappear at Grade 9? Do schools and schoolteachers suddenly get better? Do parents no longer need to mentor their children? Is the home no longer superior to an institution as a place to raise and educate children? The truth is, nothing changes when children reach 9th grade. Homeschooling still works best.

I homeschool my children through high school because high school homeschoolers have swag.

As one of the lead administrators of a high school homeschooling group, I get to work with lots of high school homeschoolers. No doubt about it, these are confident, functional, well-adjusted kids. Compared to other teens, they have a deep sense of who they are, less concern about who they are not, and a desire to share themselves with others. Compared to other children, homeschooled high schoolers are more independent and confident and open to new ideas and activities. They are fun and interesting people to be around. These are the kind of people I want my children to be.

I homeschool my children through high school because I want my husband and I to continue to be major influences in the lives of our children as they deepen and broaden their world view and consider their futures beyond our home.

The high school years are the time when parents can have the most impact on the lives of their children. Up to age 10, the parents’ role is primarily to love their children and keep them safe. That parental role expands greatly as children mature. Parents become mentors for their older children. They advise and provide wise counsel. Homeschooling through high school gives parents and children much more time to grow and learn together.

I homeschool my children through high school because I want other homeschoolers to be my children’s primary social group.

Homeschooled children are kind to each other and they know how to have fun. They tend to be members of functional, in tact families and it shows in their maturity. As a group, homeschool children go to church more than they go to movies or parties, they delay dating, and their parents strictly monitor their social lives. These are the kinds of kids I want my children to hang out with.

I homeschool my children through high school because I don’t want my children’s values and religious beliefs to be tested before they are ready.

It always makes me cringe when homeschool parents say they are sending their children to traditional high school because they are sure their children will be able to stand on their own values and beliefs. Or, even worse, they are expecting their children to change the culture around them, either by being a superior role model or by being an evangelist for their faith. I think it’s dangerous to send children into an environment like high school before they are mature, tested, and prepared. The consequences can be truly dangerous. High schoolers are still children and it’s better to keep them safe and in a positive environment for as long as you possibly can. They will have plenty of time to tackle the world and prove their substance when they are adults.

I homeschool my children through high school because I don’t want my children to miss the college and career opportunities available only to homeschoolers.

If I homeschool my high school children, they can take many of their classes at area universities and rack up high school and college credit at the same time. They have the time to focus on academic preparations for college classes and college entrance exams, to get jobs in order to save money for college, and/or to get apprenticeships or internships in order to explore potential career choices.

I homeschool my children through high school to give my children the time to pursue extra-curricular interests.

It’s great if high schools offer lots of sports, theater, and club activities, but what difference does it make if the demands on students’ time takes up all their daylight and evening hours? If you live in or near a city, it’s likely these same opportunities are available to homeschoolers, just in a slightly different format. Are you an accomplished musician? Consider a community band, orchestra or philharmonic. A sports enthusiast? Find a recreational or club athletic team to play on. Interested in ROTC? Try the Civil Air Patrol or other quasi-military community group. Speech and debate? Join 4-H. Theater? Try community theater. Service clubs? The sky’s the limit on this one! Church youth groups, Boy and Girl scout programs, and oodles of community service programs abound.

Slate magazine recently published an article by Laurence Steinberg, a professor at Temple University, sub-titled “American High Schools are a Disaster.” He referenced the dismal academic progress that has been made with high schools, saying, “It’s not just No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that have failed our adolescents, it’s every single thing we have tried.” He also wrote about the horrible social environment of American high schools, where students “socialize, show off their clothes, use their phones and, oh yeah…go to class.”

Why would I want to send my high school children to a place like that when there’s a place like home?

Until next time…be fearless.

How I Became An Education Outlier

One of the reasons I started writing this blog is I was afraid to openly speak the truth about what I believed about education and homeschooling. I felt I had a unique perspective that could benefit homeschool parents, but I also knew some parents would think my position was foolish. So I was cautious in my conversations. But, with my writing, well…I’ve always been a rebel with a pen.

There was a series of definable moments in my life that shaped my education worldview and established me as an education “outlier.” Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about how one unusual experience, or one group of unusual experiences, can set people on a completely different trajectory for life. They become “outliers,” people who operate outside the norm due to the unique way in which their lives unfold.

There were four “moments” or “circumstances” that formed my view of education and established me as an education outlier. Here they are:

1. At 30 years old, I became a public school teacher.

Teaching was my second career. I was 30 years old and the mother of two children when I first stepped foot in a classroom in the role as teacher. That maturity led me to question the effectiveness of the traditional classroom learning environment from the beginning. I could immediately see that a “one size fits all” approach to education did not fit all and I was troubled that students had to find their place in the system because there was no way the system could find its place in the student.

I also found the parent in me constantly questioning the teacher in me. Much of what I was taught as a teacher, and some of what was required by my school district, did not jive with what I knew to be true and beneficial as a mother. I began to see how schooling was often at odds with parenting and how the school environment inadvertently undermined or ignored the desires of parents. When the choice was between doing what the teacher in me said to do as opposed to what the parent in me said to do, I chose the parent every time. Pretty soon I realized parents made better teachers than trained professionals.

2. School made my oldest son sick.

There’s nothing like a crisis to help a person see circumstances clearly and sort out priorities. Just one month into my oldest son’s kindergarten year, we discovered he had a serious illness that flared with school-related anxiety.

Having a sick kid has a way of completing destroying everything you used to think was important. Who cares if you packed the backpack right or got the homework done, when your child is suffering? Who cares about getting to school on time, or even getting there at all? Even important things, like learning to read and write, seemed unnecessary at the time.

The reality of my son’s illness forced me into homeschooling and it inspired me to set aside what everyone else was telling me about how to do it. Instead, I tried to focus on my children’s needs and giving them the healthiest, happiest, and sweetest childhoods possible.

3. My daughter was not allowed to stand up to eat her lunch in the school cafeteria.

After we pulled our oldest son out of school, our oldest daughter, then in second grade, asked us to homeschool her. We were surprised. We thought she loved school. She had lots of friends, loved her teacher, and did well. But she described for us an atmosphere for learning and living that we didn’t appreciate.

One of the most eye-opening stories involved the cafeteria. Having been a classroom teacher, I had first-hand knowledge of the de-humanizing environment of the school lunchroom. It has always reminded me of a cross between the orphanage dining room depicted in the movie “Oliver” (where the little orphan boy pitifully raises his bowl and asks for just one more spoonful of gruel) and a Nazi-run concentration camp.

In the school cafeteria, children are herded in single file, rushed through a serving line, and given about 15 minutes to eat their food. They sit crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at long tables facing each other while lunchroom monitors patrol,  telling the children things like “don’t talk with your mouth full” and “don’t mix your food together.” (Our son once had to sit at the “naughty table” in the school cafeteria because he stirred two foods together.)

School lunchrooms smell bad and the noise is deafening. At the end of their 15-minute lunch, the children line back up single file to march out of the cafeteria in lock-step. Keep in mind that THIS is the time of day that most school children say is their favorite.

My daughter hated the lunch room food, couldn’t finish eating in the 15 minutes provided to her, and was so short that she couldn’t comfortably sit on the bench at her table and also eat the food in front of her. Inexplicably, the lunchroom monitors would not allow my daughter to sit on her knees or stand at the table to eat her lunch, proving to me once-and-for-all that there is nothing so heartless, useless, and ridiculous than an institution.

4. My kids starting beating the system—at the system’s own game.

One of the reasons homeschool parents are hesitant to get too creative in their instruction is that they know, at some point, their children will have to come back into the system if they want to go to college. They will need to take the college entrance exams and they will need to be prepared for the university learning environment. So, while I was sure my homeschool was growing my children’s brains and preparing them well for life, I remained a little nervous about how they would do when they had to return to traditional classrooms, homework, and tests in college.

You know how some people know where they were the moment the Challenger space shuttle exploded? Or the day the World Trade Center fell? I remember where I was when my oldest children told me the scores they got on the college entrance exams. Those scores validated the choices we had made for our children’s education. They meant we could keep on doing what we were doing with our younger children. And they convinced me that untraditional forms of education work as well, if not better, than traditional forms of schooling, even when measured by academia’s own most beloved measuring stick – the test.

By any measure, all three of my oldest children have done well in the university setting. The fact that they didn’t take tests or complete traditional assignments during their homeschooling years caused no issues at all. Instead, it’s likely their independent and creative minds not only helped them pick up these simple tasks without difficulty, but also embrace the other, more complicated, assignments presented to them in college as well.

These four circumstances of my life established me as an education outlier.

Until next time…be fearless.