On Predicting Teacher Success According to Gladwell

This may be a bit less current, but it was something I have been meaning to post.

While there is certain amount of criticism and a minor degree of backlash regarding the work of Malcolm Gladwell, I found his recent New Yorker piece, “Most Likely to Succeed,” to be a rather compelling read. Of course his comparison of teachers to NFL quarterbacks has a kind of sensational appeal, probably a consideration of the editorial staff. Yet, The New Yorker reigns as one of the most venerable remaining American periodicals, so I like to think that there was more to their decision to run this than that. I also believe the piece might have been better served with more in-depth explanation and less “back-of-the-envelope calculation” from tangential experts. Still, the essential idea, that there is little that can be learned about a prospective teacher prior to their entering the classroom that adequately predicts their success rate, is what lingers as most intriguing.

Perhaps it was because I was a late-comer to the teaching profession that I became acutely aware that many of the metrics that are used to project how successful an individual will be in the classroom were almost completely rubbish. Transcripts, for one, always seemed to be overvalued in my mind. So much attention is paid to the contents of a transcript at the detriment of what was actually learned. Granted it is often used as an early threshold and, of course, on some abstract level university grades demonstrate some minor level of competence. Yet, beyond passing a course, a given mark has increasingly less value the more distance there is from the immediate course context. Moreover, judging someone in any capacity based on where they went to university has always seemed more to do with the self serving elitism of the arbiter than anything else. Still, these elements always seem to be significant factors in hiring teachers.

In the NFL, it seems the focus in finding a quarterback is on a technical assessment and the merits of the program from where the individual played at university. Again, neither is inherently helpful. I would submit that in nearly all sports, isolated drills and technical tests are often used to determine ability. Yet performances outside the context of the game, where real pressure to perform exists with real obstacles and challenges to success are always present, are not terribly useful for the complicated decision making and in-the-moment execution of an NFL quarterback. This is what makes the combine pretty ineffective in measuring quarterback performance. Moreover, Gladwell is right in the sense that it is almost as if the NFL quarterback is playing a different game than was played at the college level. For instance, quarterbacks that run the ball a lot have never lasted terribly long at the professional level. Plus, how many university coaches have true intimate knowledge of working with quarterbacks at the professional level and use that as a key feature in their program – half a dozen, maybe. So, even the instruction and knowledge that a college quarterback might receive may not always immediately transferable to the professional ranks.

Perhaps, the most compelling section of the article was the third element that introduced the implications of what Gladwell dubs the “quarterback problem” within the financial advising industry. Clearly, this was the thrust of Gladwell’s point, combining the commentary about gatekeepers and lowering the standards of entry. The argument for changing the standards of entry into the profession has merit. I’ve long thought that the apprentice model is far better than the current one in place. The current student teaching model is at best an aberrated experience of what it is like to work in the classroom. More often than not the experience is too short and inadequate. Additionally, playing the numbers and casting a wider net in hopes of catching higher quality fish is certainly a legitimate strategy, albeit an expensive one both in time and resources.

Ultimately, I liked the piece. I found it to be really well crafted, from a writing standpoint. I also thought it was, in some ways, a terrible oversimplification. Apparently, his brother is a principal and this likely offers Gladwell a window that both reveals and obscures. Yet, the kernal idea, that “what matters more than anything in predicting professional success is the quality of the learning environment that the quarterback [teacher] is drafted into, not the quality of the experience he was drafted from,” remains fascinating. Sure he has drawn criticism already across the blogosphere, but his comparison is not easily dismissed. He himself commented on the response the article has created in a pseudo-afterword on his blog. Maybe the best aspect of the piece is the fact that it has sparked such conversations to begin.


One thought on “On Predicting Teacher Success According to Gladwell

  1. dogtrax

    Gladwell always sparks an interesting angle to his topics and I look forward to reading him in The New Yorker. I had my quibbles with this article (is a sports metaphor appropriate?) but I came away thinking of what makes a teacher worth having in the classroom (taking the perspective of a parent here) and that ability to “hear” the entire classroom and be attuned to the nuances seems critical.
    Also, he notes it is better to have a good teacher in a bad school than a bad teacher in a good school. I agree.

    Take care


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