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