Monday, December 15, 2008

Deep ...

Update: I am not sure that I made myself as clear as I might have in this post, which has garnered quite a bit of comment. So let me point out that I was focusing on the structure of the argument advanced in the article. Gladwell defines the quarterback problem as the inability to predict whether a star college quarterback will perform well in the pros. He then says that teaching also has a quarterback problem: There is no way of predicting that a student teacher will be a good teacher. No solution for the quarterback problem is actually cited in the article, either for the NFL or for teaching. No suggestion is made as to how either could predict who will do well and who will not. Both are left having to observe how things turn out for the quarterbacks and the teachers - in other words, they are left with the problem, the aforementioned inability to predict.

Post has been bumped.

Maybe you've heard the advice that, if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, you can baffle them with bullshit? Malcolm Gladwell seems to have figured out that you can combine brilliance and bullshit and really blow them away. Case in point: Most Likely to Succeed - How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?
Justify FullThe question posed in the deck is reiterated early in the piece: "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching."
So naturally, a good deal of this piece will deal with ... the problems NFL teams have when it comes to choosing quarterbacks in the college draft. In particular the article focuses on the University of Missouri Tigers' star quarterback Chase Daniel. Of course, "the problem with picking quarterbacks is that Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t." As anyone who follows football is probably aware, it's easier to quarterback in college than it is in the pros. Most such people probably also know it's because the NFL doesn't play the spread (those of you who don't know what this means can read the article.)
In other words, you're really not going to know if the hotshot college quarterback is going to make it in the pros until he tries. Period.
Teaching, however, would seem to be another matter, and Gladwell tells of two hypothetical teachers, Brown and Smith, who "both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs. Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile." According to Gladwell, "if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students’ test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are."
Well, yes, just as when the college quarterbacks start playing in the pros, you find out - a lot more quickly than in three or four years - who can do the job and who can't. Moreover, you haven't predicted anything. You have simply, in Yogi Berra's formulation, seen a lot just by observing.
Gladwell notes that "test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans." Right. And the guy who scores highest on the grammar test, the vocabulary test, and the reading comprehension test may just not turn out to be even a half-decent writer.
Teaching, like writing, requires a certain amount of talent. Mastering a subject does not mean necessarily that you will be any good at teaching it. Teaching is also, to some extent, a performance art. And you either have the knack of performing or you don't. Probably the only way to determine if someone is any good at teaching is the same way you find out if somebody can act: auditions, rehearsals, actual performances.
Otherwise, as Gladwell finally gets around to telling us: "A prediction, in a field where prediction is not possible, is no more than a prejudice."
So the point of this article would appear to be this: You can't predict how a college quarterback will perform in the pros or how aspiring teachers will perform in the classroom. But you'll know whether they can perform, once you see ... how they perform. I'll bet that's right.


  1. Correctly said.a person may be highly intelligent but may be poor teacher.teaching capability like art is inherent.

  2. Heh heh, I like the length of your post! Gladwell, shove over.

  3. Anonymous12:22 PM

    That's the point. You can't tell until you see them in action. And once you see how bad they are, they need to be fired. Applied to the Ryan Leafs and Tim Couches for QBs. And applies to the awful teachers out there now. It's time to have more stringent standards for tenure and pay based on quality.

  4. I think you missed an important part of the article, Frank. First, it's not so obvious that we can't predict who will be a good teacher. Our current system seems set up on the assumption that we can--by stressing academic credentials, for example. But Gladwell also argues that this fact should lead to an overhaul of the education system. He proposes an apprentice system for teachers, an overhaul of the tenure system, and a big salary increase for outstanding teachers. These seem like pretty good ideas to me. What do you say?

  5. Anonymous2:04 PM

    Teachers do audition, it's called "student teaching" and it's required to get a credential, at least it is in California. Not only is the teacher auditioning for at least two master teachers, the advisor for the education department where the teacher is earning his/her degree observes the teacher and critiques him/her. If the teacher makes it past the student teaching phase and is lucky enough to land a job, he/she is required to work for three years in that district without a contract. At any time during that three years, the teacher can be let go for any reason. Not until the end of the three years is the teacher offered tenure from the district on the recommendation of the administration (school principal) who has observed that teacher in the classroom over the years.

    These requirements are much more stringent than any private sector job I've ever held where the longest probationary period was six months.

    Sure bad teachers can slip through the cracks, but that isn't as rampant as many people seem to believe. Teachers who aren't offered a contract and tenure can wander from district to district for years. But a tenured teacher has earned the position with the support of master teachers, adivisors, and administration. I'm skeptical that a large number of bad teachers are getting through this rigorous screening.

  6. Writing is not a matter of talent, it is matter of practice. There is a curiously Western belief that success is predicated on talent and not hard work which is covered at length in Gladwell's book.

    And as to the matter of tenure. It absolutely needs to be overhauled. Tenure grants near irrevocable job-security at the average tender age of 27. After which the teacher needs to commit a felony to lose their job.

    At a minimum, tenure needs to be renewable, say every seven years. Maybe few bad teachers get through the initial screening, but there is no recourse if they become a bad teacher later in their career.

  7. Hi Evan,
    I was commenting only on the article, in which Gladwell ceratinly draws an analogy between teaching and pro quarterbacking. The latter he says cannot be predicted. He then says the former has a quarterback problem, which to me means you can't predict whether teachers will be any good before they actually start teaching. Then he serves as a way of predicting a system that amounts to observation, not prediction. So I think his argument is poorly framed.
    That said, I, too, like the idea of a teaching apprenticeship, an overhaul of tenure, etc.

  8. Hi KevDog,
    I really don't think you can factor talent out of the equation. Even if you have talent, you need to practice. And I am not talking merely of the mechanics of writing. Yes, practically anyone can learn to write correctly. Talent is that something extra that you either have or don't. The same holds true for teaching.

  9. Anonymous7:48 PM

    The post about the rigorous vetting process teachers go through highlights one of the problems of selecting teachers. The goals of the school may not be congruent with the educational needs of the children.

    My impression of the vetting process in my neighborhood is that it produces seemingly dynamic teachers who get along well with parents and are very good at controlling classes. Are they any good at educating kids? That's anybody's guess.

  10. Anonymous2:02 AM

    As a teacher I can tell you all that the reason why tenure is so important is because of current district policies towrds the employment of administrators.
    administrators don't always care who is effective at getting kids to learn because they are concerned with, first, their own job security. Administrators do not have tenure; they are basically "at will" employees of the district office, and as such tend to be more concerned with keeping things steady and problem free.
    The problem is that teachers who are effective must often push the envelope of expectations and experiment with alternative assessments and other pedagological approaches. This can frighten administrators, who because of the nature of their job security, have a vested interest in maintaining staus quo or in not getting questioned by their bosses at the district level.
    Without tenure, many effective teachers would stand a large chance of being fired, as it is usually the bad teachers who tend to fly under the radar and avoid trying to excel in their jobs.
    Tenure should probably be renewable at certain stages and years, but if one should lose tenure, and then go to another district, one literarly has to start over from square one in both pay and seniority and pension. Belive nme, statistics that show average teacher pay is 50K are not showing the 27K - 30K entry level pay, which can last for years.
    This is, of course, my own humble opinion, and is based only on my own experience as a teacher, and I'm sure many others probably may differ.

  11. Lucas Issacharoff5:59 AM

    I have to agree with others here that you've entirely missed the point of Gladwell's article. As you describe, he just says, "Gosh, you just can't figure out good pro quarterbacks from their college careers. You know, it's the same with teaching!"
    The point of his article is to find a solution to this problem, so he looks at the world of finance, where there is an extensive system of evaluation for incoming traders. The article was actually making an important point that the way we currently hire teachers with certain qualifications and hand out tenure basically automatically is based on a set of faulty assumptions about what makes a good teacher.

  12. Tenure is not "basically automatic!" Read the posts above that explain how tenure is achieved. It also does not prevent a teacher for being fired for cause; it just gives teachers the right to a hearing so they can't be fired arbitrarily by a vindictive or poor administrator. How many employees in the private sector have no recourse beyond their immediate supervisor? Tenure attempts to address the problem of a single administrator being judge and jury over the teachers' careers. That's all it does.

  13. Anonymous1:50 PM

    Do you know how many kids are taught math and science by teachers who dont have degrees in the subject?When my son was in ca. in 9th grade his math teacher had her degree in history,he would correct her applications.Why would anyone with a degree in math or science teach with what we pay them?Why dont we start there.

  14. KevDog: Given your statement, "Writing is not a matter of talent, it is matter of practice," could you please prove this by practising a tad and producing, after some practice, a poem of the exact same calibre as, say, let's make this easy, shall we?

    How about eight lines that shimmer with the practice of anything inked by Keats (since, clearly, he died at 26 and so, he didn't have all that many years of practice under his belt — sash? — as many other practitioners of the art and craft of poetry, those poets who practised, I mean, not the ones with talent, according to your paradigm. I dunno. Let's see, how about a week?

    I bet you could practise for a week and come back with a poem such as "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (since, you know, it's not an overly long piece of practice writing, right?). Great! TIA.