Talent = Gladwell x Daly Squared

There has been a lot of chatter about Malcom Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article on hiring and talent.   Alternatively, people who know a lot about education or know a lot about football have weighed-in.   But fortunately there is a team out there that knows a lot about both.   That’s because while you may know good pieces of education reform trivia like which star school district reformer was also a star on “Punky Brewster” or who in the charter school world did a guest turn on “Friends,” did you know that teacher quality expert and The New Teacher Project President Tim Daly’s brother is Brendan Daly, an assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings?

So, I asked them to pool their expertise and respond collectively to Gladwell’s piece.  A special thanks to Brendan, who incidentally is also a former high school teacher, for finding some time to help on this during the NFL season.

Their take is below:

The New Yorker recently published an article by Malcolm Gladwell arguing that in some professions, it is nearly impossible to tell on the front end which recruits will be successful. Gladwell’s primary examples are teachers and professional football quarterbacks. In recent years, similar arguments have been made by Michael Lewis in Moneyball about baseball players. For example, Lenny Dykstra was a perennial All-Star despite having only average physical gifts while his minor league roommate and future Oakland general manager, Billy Beane, failed to live up to expectations placed on him as a high school phenom.

Gladwell confirms what many educators and researchers already know: there is no highly reliable way to select teachers for effective performance without ever seeing them in the classroom first. That means we are unlikely to achieve our teacher quality goals through better screening alone. Nor will NFL teams find perfect quarterbacks through observations made at the league’s annual draft combine.

But there is more to the story. As Gladwell describes, some professions focus on responding to evidence of effectiveness on the job rather than predicting it up front. This can be an extremely effective approach, in part because those who show promise out of the gate tend to continue on that path, even if they were not among the top prospects initially.

For example, we have all heard fables of NFL quarterbacks drafted in the later rounds (or not at all) who went on to stardom. Tom Brady. Kurt Warner. Joe Montana. But in many cases, we knew those late round selections were something special as soon as they hit the field. Montana threw fifteen touchdowns and only nine interceptions in 1980, his first season as a regular starter for the 49ers. The next year, he led San Francisco to a Super Bowl victory. Kurt Warner was the league MVP and a Super Bowl winner in his very first season (1999) after going undrafted when he graduated from Northern Iowa (where he sat the bench until his senior year).

Luckily for fans, the NFL is highly sensitive to indications of performance. When a star player proves his worth, no ones cares any longer where he was drafted. The New England Patriots, having been pleasantly shocked by Tom Brady’s emergence as a star substitute for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, did not put Brady on the bench when Bledsoe returned from injury. Despite Bledsoe’s pedigree (#1 overall pick) and Brady’s lack thereof (#199 pick), it was immediately clear that Brady was destined to be the superior player. And Bledsoe was a three-time Pro Bowl selection in the prime of his career, not a washed up journeyman.

Researchers tell us that similar things are true of teachers. Outstanding teachers might come from high profile programs like Teach For America or The New Teacher Project… but they might also come from any number of other pipelines. If a teacher is among the top performers relative to other novices, he/she is likely to remain a top performer in future years. Just like Montana… and Warner… and Brady.

Professional football and teaching diverge when it comes to addressing unexpectedly poor performance. In the NFL, ineffective players have short careers, even when they are highly touted (and well compensated) draft picks. Cade McNown, the twelfth pick in the 1999 draft, was out of football after the 2002 season, having burned through three teams and having thrown fewer touchdowns than Brady threw in his first year as the starter for the Patriots.

Though there are certainly exceptions, education tends to work quite differently. Ineffective teaching is rarely addressed, despite evidence showing that it has a long term impact on kids. Principals are known to seek transfers for problematic teachers. They might even relegate their riskiest staff to grade levels where testing does not occur. Nonetheless, in almost all cases, the teacher continues to teach, too often with the same results.

It is hard to imagine being forced to watch thirteen seasons of Cade McNown misfiring in the NFL. He was ushered out quickly when it became clear he would never deliver. But what educator can’t point to a colleague who was permitted to continue at a low performance level year after year?

Why? Why does the NFL aggressively respond to evidence of performance while the teaching profession does not? The main reason lies with the decision-makers. Head coaches in the NFL are extraordinarily accountable for results. They are judged by the performance of the players they put on the field, and they cannot afford to risk losses by sticking with poor players for too long. A coach has every incentive to pull the plug as soon as it is clear that the second stringer is a better bet than the starter. As fans, we demand it.

In the NFL, results are very clear. Wins and losses tell the story. For individual players, there are numerous statistics that, although individually imperfect, create a collective portrait of effectiveness. Some may prioritize quarterback rating while others look for big plays or minimal interceptions. However, we can be fairly certain at the end of the day that almost everyone will find Peyton Manning preferable to Trent Edwards.

Which brings us back to education. What incentives confront principals when they make personnel decisions? Are they truly accountable for the results attained by their staff? For most of educational history, the answer has clearly been no. Principals could attribute student failure to poverty, home conditions, lack of financial resources, curriculum… take your pick. Addressing teacher performance is time consuming and frequently controversial. It involves difficult conversations, visiting classrooms regularly, and finding additional support. Too often, educators decide to look the other way. Teachers seldom receive meaningful, honest feedback on their work in the classroom. Subpar teachers are ignored during their probationary periods and worked around once they have tenure.

When it comes to measuring effectiveness, educators have trouble agreeing on which metrics should be used. There is doubt about whether individual contributions can be disentangled from those of colleagues. And beneath the surface, there is a tendency to blame families and society for student performance – the equivalent of the quarterback pointing to a porous offensive line. The result has been stagnation.

To improve American education, then, should we make it more like Gladwell’s description of the NFL? Should brutal honesty about performance rule the day, and should mediocrity result in a fast exit from the profession? Let’s be fair – every analogy has its limits. But increased accountability for results has the potential to compel action where passivity has ruled. Like head coaches, principals should put the best possible instructional teams in their classrooms. They must invest in them the way Bill Walsh invested in Joe Montana, analyzing his performance rigorously and pushing him to be outstanding, not merely good. The value of a teacher in supporting student performance is almost surely exceeds the value of a quarterback to a football team.

Like professional football, the education field should focus on responding affirmatively and swiftly to evidence of effectiveness on the job rather than seeking to predict effectiveness prior to entry and discounting everything that happens after that. Results matter, and we cannot continue to pretend that they do not.

It is true that in some cases, extra time and development make a difference. Brett Favre was a disaster with the Atlanta Falcons before becoming a Hall of Famer with the Packers. Steve Young took years to mature as a backup before emerging as a star with the 49ers (after pulling a Tom Brady maneuver on an aging Joe Montana, no less). But until these players earned their way onto the field, they sat.

If the NFL can set a standard for excellence, so can American schools. Just imagine if we took every classroom decision as seriously as the head coach takes the quarterback position. Parents and kids deserve no less.

–Guestbloggers Brendan and Tim Daly

Update:  More from Gladwell himself here and from former O-lineman Ezra Klein here.

25 Replies to “Talent = Gladwell x Daly Squared”

  1. Wow. Best Eduwonk post of 2008 comes in at the buzzer. Or should I say after the two-minute warning.

  2. What a great piece.

    But what I need to know now is who was on Friends or Punky Brewster. Enlighten me, please!

  3. The NFL is a market driven operation on balance. Public schooling is mostly a non-market protection racket that vitiates consumer sovereignty. Of course there will be accountability in football verses schools. Duh!

  4. Yes, let’s imagine the “non-market racket” of America’s Public Education taken as seriously as the “market driven” NFL. Why not price out poorer teams/schools, charge outrageous ticket prices for games/classrooms, invest unfathomable salaries on players/teachers? What kind of social class warfare are you bucking for here? Good news! Take a look at schools in poverty and you’ll notice we’re on our way to Social Darwinism.
    But most of all let’s give it all the national attention, devotion, and media bites to education that we adorn on our beloved national passtime. Imagine this bold new world that recognizes the value of attention to education from every living room and sports bar that we have cultivated with the money of ‘market driven’ sporting teams.

  5. Lori,

    You are a control freak that cannot stand that people my get what they want, and do so through voluntary exchange.

  6. You make some good points, but if you listen to your own logic you will reach different conclusions.

    Firstly you ask, “Why does the NFL aggressively respond to evidence of performance while the teaching profession does not?” Then you give a weak answer. The better answer can be found in your next paragraph where you write, “In the NFL, results are very clear. Wins and losses tell the story.” That situation will NEVER apply in education even after we do a much much better job of measuring.
    Then you ask and accurately answer, “are they truly accountable for the results attained by their staff? For most of educational history, the answer has clearly been no. …” You are accurate enough when you assume the worst and write, “principals could attribute student failure to poverty, home conditions, lack of financial resources, curriculum… “ The problem with your skin-deep appraisal is found in the next paragraph, “When it comes to measuring effectiveness, educators have trouble agreeing on which metrics should be used. … And beneath the surface, there is a tendency to blame families and society for student performance …”

    In actuality, we didn’t need excuses to justify our primitive system. That primitive system and the realities that create it are there. And that bed was burning when we laid down in it. The question is how do we improve. I’m proud to be an “incrementalist.” In sports there is a name for the “disrupters,”they are called a “one man team.” You guys want educators to run a two minute game for the entire game every day, every year. But it’s a long season and over-training is just as counterproductive as under-training.

    In actuality, the metrics you seek are fundamentally flawed. We could patch them up if you want to compromise. In football, the rules committees go back and forth debating interpretations that will create a balance between passing attacks vs. running offense or defense vs. offense. But if your team loses the debate, do you take your football and go home? Look at the crybabying of the last few weeks by opponents of Linda Darling Hammond. Educational politics will always be a contact sport, but you can’t keep trying to take out your opponents knees.

    You under-rate the importance of “Addressing teacher performance is time consuming …” If you NEVER have time to practice a play, how often will you call it in a game. You accuse us educators of being “the equivalent of the quarterback pointing to a porous offensive line.” But if a coach is accountable, does he take into account the reality of a porous line?

    You write accurately, “like head coaches, principals should put the best possible instructional teams in their classrooms.” You can either help us address the realities (such as excellent principals who go weeks at a time without even having a chance to think about the quality of instruction) or you can engage in the blame game (meaning that principals have even less time to think about instruction because that are even more preoccuppied with Cover Your Ass). team. (A terrible set of unforced errors occurred in NYC. When you shamelessly manipulate data on student performance, and then you want teachers to trust data-driven evaluations, you do not realize that your disrespect for the game has consequences. For instance, you had a strong enough case on the Rubber Room without writing a TNTP report that was so unfair (an unaccountable to the rules of discourse and methodology) that it further poisoned the well. (We in the union want a good-faith deal to cut bad teachers. The situation in NYC and D.C. reminds me of the old Oklahoma A and M team that was so bad that the opponents walked off the field in disgust. The Aggies scored four plays later. Nobody is defending “the status quo;” you just keep giving us ultimatums that we can’t help but refuse. We keep begging you to accept “Yes” for an answer.)
    You write accurately, “like professional football, the education field should focus on responding affirmatively and swiftly to evidence of effectiveness on the job rather than seeking to predict effectiveness prior to entry and discounting everything that happens after that. Results matter, and we cannot continue to pretend that they do not.”

    You want “brutal honesty about performance,” but where is that accountability in regard to the failures of NCLB-type accountability? So-called “reformers” have not taken the time to learn enough about educational and political realities. It is much easier for you guys to maintain the fiction that we know what the answers are, but we don’t have the will. But winning coaches learn from experience, and they build on a tradition. You “reformers” have a lot of desire, but you need to be more coachable.

    This is already too long and I’d don’t want to make an overly broad statement, but please let me simplify (which is what you do in adverse conditions or when skill players are injured) Too much of the “research” espoused by accountability hawks are like a team with a high risk offense that counts the points it scores, but ignores turnovers, fumbles, and other mistakes that allow the opponent to put even more points on the board. You still hold to the a priori assumption that best practices for elementary and magnet schools will be enough for the “complex ecology” of neighborhood secondary schools. If fact, you make plenty of a priori assumptions. You assume that accountability must quarterback the reform team and that it can’t just be one factor. Who knows, maybe you are right, but have you ever questioned that assumption. You assume that “output” accountability is better than “input” accountability, even though we know a lot about input accountability and very little about input capability. You ASSUME that data-driven accountability is compatible with data-driven decision-making although there is a long history of evidence against your assumption.

    As I wrote in today’s This Week In Education, the approach of many “reformers” to teacher quality would be like a league with a shortage of quarterbacks mandating linemen, linebackers or whatever to change to that position. Has it ever occurred to you that just like in football where there are differences in both physical and personality traits between “the pit” and the secondary, there are also personality differences between effective teachers in low poverty schools and in hard core inner city schools like mine.

    By the way, I have a former student in the NFL. When we played basketball (or when no adults were looking, tackle football) there was a felony on every play. Scoobie (Antonio Smith) made it because he has incredible “Emotional Intelligence.” At every level he found a mentor. When in came back from Oklahoma State and showed off his pass rush skills when rebounding against me, I was still able to use my old man strength, I thought. After the last student left the gym he said, “D.T. One more for old times sake.” Then with nobody looking he whipped the hell out of me, showing what he could have done.

    You guys should “go to school” on Scoobie’s wisdom. Education is a people business. You can’t just beat down your opponents, armed with the unshakeable faith in your own righteousness.

    By the way, is it the job of public school coaches to just put points on the board? Or do they have a higher form of accountability for the human beings under their watch?

  7. Hey Coach,

    Every team needs a Gus Frerotte. You should know that as well as anybody. The same can be said for the “journeyman” teachers in education.

    Just like Gus kept your team plugging along–until maybe yesterday that is when your maybe superstar, maybe not, Tavaris Jackson, failed to come through— these teachers keep the wheels turning on our public school system. Regardless of how the reformers fret, those wheels keep turning on a vehicle that is open to everybody year after year. Our system may not take the title, but it is perpetually in the playoff hunt.

    The free market and superstars have a mutual love affair. The average American rides a wave of devotion/devastation when it comes to the market and superstars (see Krugman today). We want to be rich, but we want to hang Bernard Madoff when we find out what it means to be rich. We want to drink beer and have a good time with Brett Favre but we cringe when we see what having fun means for Michael Vick.

    School reformers like free marketers love superstars unchecked and heroic. They fail, though, to heed the warning signs ever present amongst the glory seekers (people like Michelle Rhee) before they crash and burn. They also fail to recognize how difficult it is to lead a team of egomaniacs. Meanwhile, organized labor sees through the veil consistently advocating for those who keep the system moving–the Gus Frerottes and the average teachers in our nation. The Next Man Up might not make Sportscenter, but he will make a minimum salary, increase that salary with longevity, and have the chance to get vested in a defined benefit pension plan. The playoffs will be advertised as glory attained (except maybe not for the Vikings this year), but in reality those playoff checks are not for glory. They are extra pay for extra work. Kind of sounds like summer school or working on the curriculum committee.

    The simple fact is that if you had a couple of million players in the NFL you would look a heck of lot like our public school system.

  8. The problem that I see with this approach is that you are required to have winners and losers. NCLB is designed to insure that there are no losers – that’s what “no child left behind” means. If the NFL model is so successful, how do we end up with the Detroit Lions?

    Don’t misunderstand me – I agree completely that we have to be far, far more aggressive in weeding out underperforming teachers and administrators. In order to do so, though, we need two things – more people trying to get into the field so we have a greater pool of potential applicants, and a training/support model that pushes all workers in the system to excellence. I would recommend looking at the military model rather than sports; every individual in every company of the Marines is expected to perform at a high level, as is every company as a whole, and every battalion, and every command. They are selective in recruitment, but they assume nobody walking in the door is good enough to begin with; there is a very aggressive training and development program, and that goes on for the entire career of each soldier.

  9. GREAT POST. Thanks guys.

    Another nuance – NFL is only sport where coach can easily hold player accountable.

    Because of their strong unions, NBA, MLB have guaranteed contracts. If Stephon Marbury is so unbelievably toxic that Knicks don’t want him around in PRACTICE, he still gets his $22 million per year. Can’t be fired.

    Conn M, great point about the Marines. They do knock out about 1/3 of them in basic training, though.

  10. If you want to extend the analogy to comparing principals to coaches, remember that in a traditional school district the superintendent is the general manager, and the board is the owner. If you’re the coach of Oakland or Detroit, you can’t say “We lost again this Sunday because this organization has made stupid personnel decisions every year for the past decade.” Yet, that’s a valid appraisal of the underlying problem. In a charter school, you can have the Bill Parcells type who is both coach and GM, which is why, if you get the right person at the top, these can be great schools. Even in a district with strict work rules, you get your star principals who move from school to school with their own little cadre of teachers and assistants (a la Parcells) and who can drive out or improve bad teachers in a school, but that’s pretty much entirely due to force of will over coming the system.

    I think the Gladwell analysis also underestimates the interaction between the player and the team. Look at Randy Moss, for example. Put him in Oakland and his career grinds to a halt. Put him in New England and he has perhaps the greatest season any receiver has had in the NFL.

  11. I like the idea of comparing teaching to the military (per McQuinn, above). One difference of course is that the military can enforce way more consequences than teachers can when the students/privates misbehave or don’t toe the line. Can teacher force students to crawl in the mud or clean a toilet with a toothbrush? Not only can’t they do that, if they tried they’d be fired! Maybe we need to look at the military for more practical solutions to student behavior problems.

    When I taught high school and junior high school (before leaving education and becoming an attorney), one of the most frustrating obstacles to effective teaching was the problem of students who would refuse to follow the rules, come to class, be polite, etc. and then would suffer no consequences for their actions. Principals wouldn’t keep them out of class, parents would complain and get them out of detention. We need more consequences, enforced reliably and consistently by all staff members. I think that would do a lot to halt the problems of student low-achievement in lower income public schools. Teachers can’t teach if they have no power over the misbehaving students to make them come to class or follow the school rules.

  12. Attorney DC,

    Why don’t we just go ahead and complete the trend by nationalizing and militarizing the schools? That way there would be even less obstacles to imperialist indoctrination. The military-industrial-complex would have more efficient access to fresh meat for these idiotic wars. Oops, I meant for the War on Terror, War on Drugs, War for Democracy, or whatever you want to call the next crime. Oops.

  13. Lou,

    Nice try, but unions can make no claim to raising the well-being of all workers. By receiving legal privilege- like the middle class medieval artisans- unions engage in numerous violations of property rights. First, they deny the right of association to teachers and potential teachers who want to negotiate with the employer. Secondly, by raising union pay above the market rate they cause un- or under- employment, especially to those teachers that are not included in the union. Of course, public sector unions have access to taxes and high licensing costs, which mask or transfer the immediate negative effects. Thirdly, it is an economic fact that protected groups are disincentivised. The quality of work goes down and the costs go up in unionized labor. Finally, it is the taxpayer, the parents and the children who pay for what could be labeled a teachers’ middle class aristocracy.

    By denying these economic realities you show your ignorance or interest. Either way, public unions ought to be banished. This is not to say that unions have not checked administrative power on occasion. That is why the government’s bureaucratic control should cease in its entirety as well.

    That would be real privatization, a real free market. No government involved in education at all. And hey, no privilege means accountability.

  14. I’d like to see the percentage of Teaching Fellows that leave after three or five years and see similar data for starting players on the Vikings, not counting those who leave due to injuries or become too old to play.

    I’ll bet these two professions aren’t as different as you’re making them out to be.

  15. Doesn’t anyone remember Jim Plunkett? You know that guy who won the Heisman trophy at Stanford, went to the NFL and had little success for almost ten years, then won two super bowls for the Raiders in the early eighties. I guess that would just make the story too messy. Might make one wonder if the team consisted of more than the quarterback. But then again, is teaching really a team sport? Do the first grade teachers pass the kids to the second grade teacher? Or maybe its more like a handoff? No, its passing. We all know how schools prefer the passing game 🙂

    OK, I do have something serious to say.

    I found Gladwell’s article to be disappointing because the only quantification of the problem that he mentions doesn’t seem to support his conclusion. Gladwell references Hanushek’s estimate that replacing the bottom 6%-10% of teachers with average teachers could mean closing the US test result gap with other countries of similar economic status. This statistic seems to indicate that teacher selection processes are already batting somewhere between .900 and .940. — notice that subtle switch to the baseball metaphor, the sport for real wonks — These numbers hardly seem to reflect processes that don’t know how to select teachers. Since the estimate is for all existing teachers and not just new teachers, the selection process is probably even doing better. So where’s the beef? Let’s have some numbers that could actually convince someone that a wholesale change in teacher retention practices might actually outperform marginal changes to the existing practices. It would seem there would be ample evidence from the business world. Why were those numbers not mentioned?

  16. Thanks to John Thompson for a nicely-written set of counter-arguments. And to others for joining the fray.

    I, too, have been an attorney and a teacher, and am now a union rep for teachers and support staff. My husband is a teacher. When in the classroom, I was a good teacher. HE is a good teacher. But, we are very different teachers. Is he more effective than I was? Was I more effective than he is? Can we be different and still effective? I believe so, but the standards must take into account those differences.

    It is difficult for me to believe that good, logical thinkers can come to the conclusion that ranking/grading/quantifying teachers and teaching is comparable to the NFL. The NFL is only a comparative microcosm of the teaching profession. Think of the number of middle school, then culled into high school, then further culled into college-level players. Not being a football fan, I have no idea how many of those become NFL players, but I’ll bet it’s a very small percentage. The same can not be said for teachers: there are millions because they are needed. As in any field, some are excellent, some good, and some poor, but determining which is which is darned hard.

    A good quarterback with a poor coach will not have the same opportunities for success that a mediocre quarterback with a great coach will. Alternatively, a good quarterback with a good coach, but one with whom he does not “click”, may or may not do well. Teachers, too, have good principals/superintendents/and poor ones – all in the same career. There are differing expectations year-by-year and principal-by-principal. There are new evaluation forms and “no one will get an “exceptional” any more” statements as principals change. Comparing an evaluation (even a well-done one) from 1998 to one from 2008 can be an exercise in futility.

    Comparing how good a quarterback is to his linebacker teammate is tricky. They have different roles on the field and one depends on the other. Then try comparing a an AP Physics teacher to a phys ed teacher to a special education teacher. Put those same three positions in an urban school system with little money, a suburban school system with more and a rural school system with just enough and see how difficult setting the standards can be for even those 9 combinations, let alone deciding whether or not any individual teacher has met the standards.

    As a final note, one case I am dealing with right now involves a high school English teacher being judged by a former automotive teacher-turned-principal. The English teacher was seen by the now-Principal’s colleagues in the voc/tech school as being too tough on their students, which often translated as “That teacher doesn’t like our kids.”

    Can the English teacher get a fair evaluation? Maybe. Maybe not. But the personalities, biases and histories of the individuals involved in assessing teachers’ effectiveness must all be taken into account when deciding whether or not any individual teacher is doing his or her job well. There is no “wins-loss” record to go by.

  17. Teaching is really more like retail work or waiting on tables. A person who can handle a certain amount of pressure and still be relaxed enough to interact with people has one of the necessary qualities to be a successful teacher.

    Of course, they need subject mastery and the rare ability to present the mastered subject to untrained people.

    They need to be able to endure a little abuse and not take it to heart.

    Also, the successful teacher has to be able to adapt to changing conditions, immediately if necessary.

    Only one of these necessary conditions (subject mastery) can be inferred from an academic transcript. The other conditions can be taught, but usually through prosaic life experience, the kind you get working to pay your tuition bill. Of course I don’t have the statistics to back up this claim, but it seems that some of the best teachers of the past were from working-class or poor families who attained their desirable qualities as they struggled to get a degree and a certificate. Maybe there is a way to get more people like that in our classrooms. They will last longer and teach more effectively if we can identify them.

  18. Nancy says: “The same can not be said for teachers: there are millions because they are needed.”

    Needed? If the system is based on coercion- taxation, union power, compulsory attendance, etc., then the need you speak of is artificial indeed. This massive social disconnect means that nobody knows what the real demand is nor its dynamic quantity or quality. Only the market provides this knowledge.

  19. The market will demonstrate some amount of demand which is a common term given special economic meaning. In the best possible cases demand may approximate need. If you don’t like the terms than pick your own, but the difference is real.

  20. Brendan,

    Tell Childress to be careful to not scratch his head too much this week trying to strategize against Philly. You may have made your AYP by getting to the playoffs, but now it’s time to play with the big boys. You may need restructuring after next week.

    E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!!!!

  21. As an administrator in the trenches of hiring/coaching/evaluating/assigning/firing I believe the Gladwell was fundamentally correct that the general critiera for interviewing teachers is not adequate to judge their effectiveness in the classroom. Talking about teaching is like Dancing about Architecture.

    On the larger question of the piece I wonder… Is the NFL v Public School Teacher debate simply a mismatch of metaphors? Schools operate in a vastly different culture than do competitive sports. As was said above, there is the belief that there should be no “losers” in education which is something unfathomable in athletics. We can measure against metrics just as QBs do, but the bottom line for football teams is win-loss record. We, as educators, are under the belief that losses are unacceptable.

    So what’s the final score? On the relationship between picking QB and teachers from their success prior to the real-deal I would say Gladwell wins big. On the notion, pushed by several bloggers and posters, that education can be lumped into the other competitive domains such as sports, the stock market, and collecting bennie-babies as an investment I’d have to say it’s a loss.

  22. I thought the most interesting thing in the Gladwell article was his observation that the college and NFL games are DIFFERENT (and how that observation has relevance to teaching. The problem in grading QBs is that the skills to succeed in college in the spread are DIFFERENT than the skills to succeed in the NFL. Thus the challenge in evaluating talent for that position. Conversely, Gladwell argues, the skills to play college linebacker or lineman are not all that different than playing the same position in the pros.

    Nor was their much discussion about Gladwell’s policy proposal that closes his book – that one option is to pay teachers a LOT more but to cast a much bigger net at the front in and “weed out” a significant number of new hires in the first couple of years (Gladwell’s analogy between financial advisors and teaching profession). What is sad, in my opinion, is that a lot of the really interesting insights of the article are getting lost in the “teaching v football” analogy rather than the more subtle point – that the current system, which hat has roots firmly planted in the 19th century and the “apprentice student teacher to the school teacher in the little red school house, make ANY sense today.

    So what MIGHT Gladwell’s model look like? It MIGHT get rid of the 5th year – indeed it might open the profession’s entry point to those without a BA/BS. It would insert these “student teachers” in large numbers into classrooms at low wages to work under/supporting teachers (2-3 in a class?). After a period of time (2-3 years, with at least a couple of master teachers providing input) a relatively small number (10-20%) would to advance and be compensated at levels commensurate with other professionals in fields where there is high degree of “churn” among entry level professionals (the law, finance). It would remove significant layers of the “administration” (do any other skilled professions have ANYTHING analogous to the bloated district offices of our modern school districts?) putting much more power into the hands of the master teachers.

    Heterogeneous teaching conditions are much trickier problems. . In many professions that isn’t a problem – financial advisors, lawyers or accountants are evaluated different even in the largest of firms if they are working in markets with a significant opportunity to grow one’s business than in markets were there is not as much wealth/opportunity. The challenge in teaching is that we would have to have the kind of discussion that is almost impossible to have in the United States – one that realistically says that in certain settings teaching can make a tremendous difference but that it is unlikely one could ever, irrespective of teaching quality, create a cohort of high school graduates that would achieve the same level of success as a similar sized cohort from a much more affluent setting. That strikes deep into the heart into some powerful parts of the American mythos. To belabor the point, it is as if we gave a financial advisor in rural Nebraska the same $ goal for generating new business as an advisor in Palm Beach or East Hampton.

    And so we muddle along. Teachers, smarter than most, know that the underlying myth that ANYONE can succeed if they just work hard and have the right teacher, resist being held solely accountable for student achievement when they have no control over a huge number of other factors. Taxpayers demand that all teachers live up to the mythologized ideal of the dedicated superstar teacher in the inner city who throws out the stale curriculum and, overnight, turns her classroom from disruptive brats into budding ivy league candidates. Those in the industry (but not the classroom) face economic realities that encourage them to look for a silver bullet or the “next new thing” that will let both students and teachers “at the mean” achieve breakthrough results – as if, to close on Gladwell’s ideas – one could suddenly teach a great collegiate spread QB an entirely new game by simply learning how to call the signals phonetically.

    Yet those points aside I personally hope that edwonk readers don’t overlook Gladwell’s insights. They would hopefully spur a more mundane discussion than football vs. teaching but one that is critical – – is the current system of the 5th year credential, a year of student teaching, 2 years of untenured teaching and then tenure with modest incremental bumps for years of experience the best way to structure recruiting and compensation in this profession?

  23. A business can be defined as an organization of employees with goals that have results directly tethered to the business’ welfare. Education is not a business in this sense since it lacks accountability and connectedness of the employees to the results of its goals.

    Splinter education businesses like Teach For America and Kipp schools are getting better results for kids than the national education average, so they are getting media coverage from Bill Gates at TED conference, Oprah, etc. This is great news because it indicates change pockets are becoming more known to the public in the overall business of education.

    I am sure most of us are tired of those who continue to spew flame to everyone around them that there are all of these serious issues in education. Yes, OK, thanks for that, Mr. Perceptive. We have proven this for years already with our country’s world decline and atrocious dropout rates. While we eternally complain about our education system and spin in the mud what the problems are, trying to convince each other which problems are the right ones, we are just emulating the cries of all the sinking businesses that have come before us. Fight internally while someone walks out the door and starts a new splinter business that is faster and better.

    As one commenter said, let’s just start doing what we must do to improve. The problem is defined: we need great teachers.

    What I am saying is that if you are an educator who is being driven mad because you shout and shout about what needs to change in education but nobody is listening to you and your party, then you are not being resourceful enough. Be a part of the solution by connecting with the people out there who are being successful in teaching kids at a world-class level and talking to the people who can do something about it.

    I am inspired by this conversation and many of the posts on here. What I will do to improve US kids’ learning experience and achievement is to design new teacher development curriculum at my education company that I will do my best to get done in as many US schools as we can. And if I fail I get fired. That’s the stakes we need for education in this country.

  24. Just want to say your article is impressive. The lucidity in your post is simply impressive and i can take for granted you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with succeeding post. Thanks a million and please keep up the good work.

  25. I agree with Steve Arrowood. If you aren’t getting responses to your initiatives, then it’s time to find a different approach. You can change the system from the inside, but you have to be smart about it. Leverage the dynamics in place to effect change instead of just standing around talking about how you would like things to be different.

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