Of Quarterbacks and Classrooms.

Each year, the N.F.L. administers an IQ test called the Wonderlic,  which is supposed to gauge how smart a football prospect is and project how good he’ll be as a pro. It’s given special weight in evaluating college quarterbacks, a job that is so complicated and dangerous on the professional level that it’s amazing that anyone is even competent at it, let alone excellent. Each year a big deal is made about the Wonderlic score — Vince Young got a what???? — even though it’s pretty clear that the Wonderlic doesn’t guess future QB performance with any kind of effectiveness.  That’s why relatively low Wonderlic scorers like Donovan McNabb of my beloved Philadelphia Eagles go on to become Pro Bowlers while high scorers like Tim Couch fade into obscurity.

But that’s not the Wonderlic’s fault, really; there’s precious little about taking a test in a controlled classroom setting that translates into having to make five decisions while an ungodly fast behemoth is trying to slam into you in front of 75,000 people.   Malcolm Gladwell argues that the only real way to tell how good a prospect will be as an N.F.L. quarterback is to see them play in an actual N.F.L. game.

So it goes for schoolteachers, he argues. There is considerable upshot in picking a great teacher: an economist at Stanford says that an excellent teacher can negate and overcome the deleterious educational effects of crowded classrooms and even shitty schools. (Bad teachers, conversely, can offset the benefits of going to an otherwise excellent school.) Obviously, we need more excellent teachers. But earning a masters in education or a teaching certificate has almost no bearing as to whether someone will be a great teacher in practice. “The school system,” Gladwell writes, “has a quarterback problem.”

Gladwell sat in with a group of education experts who are watching video of teachers in classroom settings for evaluations. The conclusion they come to over and over again is that being a good teacher is almost entirely instinctive.

As [the panel] played one tape after another, the patterns started to become clear. Here was a teacher who read out sentences, in a spelling test, and every sentence came from her own life—“I went to a wedding last week”—which meant she was missing an opportunity to say something that engaged her students. Another teacher walked over to a computer to do a PowerPoint presentation, only to realize that she hadn’t turned it on. As she waited for it to boot up, the classroom slid into chaos.

Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” [the lead researcher] said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” [He] and his team watched in awe.

This all leads Gladwell to suggest that teacher qualifications should be less rigid.
They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. … It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance. An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot—both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.

I basically agree with this, but while Gladwell raises the issue of how one would drum up support to pay for this new system, he doesn’t really answer it.  I also think that the arguments for higher teacher pay leave out market competition from outside the teaching field. If there were greater pecuniary benefits for teachers, we would be enticing candidates who would otherwise never consider the classroom. There are undoubtedly plenty of people in the private sector who would, say,  make great chemistry teachers but know they could make more money by working for Procter & Gamble.

There are obviously problems with this, as well. We’d still have to measure just how effective the teachers were in order to weed them out, which would mean the continued use of standardized tests, which measure something, I suppose, but certainly don’t measure learning.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • geo

    assessing teacher performance is a complex task. i am at a lost as to what methods would be most accurate and reflective. however, in these discussions, there is a blind spot in the student’s perspective. i think students’ perceptions about their teachers should be equally important in measuring the effectiveness of teachers.

    in addition, i am irked (almost to the point of indignation) about intertwining economists and folks from the business world into the realm of education. both fields have such antipodal goals. maybe i am too biased to see their utility.

  • Geo: The assessments would have to be multi-modal so we can rely on something other than a kid’s score on a test to measure how well his teacher is doing. Systematic observation by more than one rater who is a master teacher may do the trick. We don’t half enough mentoring and guidance in the teaching profession – it constantly astounds me how little support teachers give each other. The staff room can be a cold cold place. As for he student perspective, various studies have shown that students tend believe that their teachers have negative perceptions of them. I think you’re right that the student’s feeling about a teacher should come to bear in measuring their effectiveness. There is a feedback loop there that good teachers know how to exploit – a teacher who feels he is effective is more likely to view even challenging students as teachable and as a result they respond with better performance.

    As for the intertwining of business and education, I want to agree with you but I would doing so chiefly out this kind of “hands off/ we know what we’re doing/ how dare you try to tell me how to teach!” emotion that a lot of youth workers and educators express. We feel like education should not be a “business”, it’s motives should be pure and unsullied by material concerns…yadda yadda. But there are some parts of the business model that we could probably adopt to our benefit. Supposedly being “noble” and “self-sacrificing” by devoting yourself to a career in education does not mean you’re good at it, neither does it means you should automatically get paid a certain amount. In business people expect to get the service that they pay for and education should be no different. This speaks not only to the matter of merit pay but that of showing how much we value teachers by making the stakes higher with higher salaries. Of course with higher salaries should come better performance but also more responsibility and accountability, just like a business. Many school curricula don’t meet the needs of the students…see a need, fill a need, that’s how you get things done. Like a business. The long term objectives of education are idealistic, but they need structure and a dose of realism to come to fruition.

  • quadmoniker

    UE: I think it’s a good idea to have many observations by more than one rater. One of the biggest issues raised by ideas such as de-unionization and merit pay is that it’s so hard to rate teacher performance. But reading the Gladwell piece it suddenly occurred to me; have people who know what they’re looking for watch teachers over and over again, and make sure the assessment is made by many, or by committee, rather than one possibly biased principal.

  • What Malcolm Gladwell points out can be said of a lot of professions, cops, planners, healthcare practictioners, etc..

    The tough part is, how do you implement this? I agree that the policy of how we hire teachers has to changed but the system that is in place now is one that tries to standardize the teaching process and try to avoid being subjective. But it seems that being subjective is the only way you can pick a natural teacher, so how do you judge that when it comes to salary?

  • verdeluz

    Geo, Coming from higher ed, where student evaluations are given a fair amount of emphasis, I think giving equal weight to students’ perceptions is excessive. I do want to know how students feel in their classes, what they think is working, and what they feel can be improved, but I take evals with a (large) grain of salt. Responses tend to have a lot more to do with the relationship between teacher and student/student and subject than with the quality or effectiveness of the education itself. Mine are typically overwhelmingly positive, which reaffirms what I already know- I get along well with my students and do what I can to make them feel safe, supported, and cared about, and that makes them want to support me, even if they’ve been periodically dissatisfied with something I’ve done. Every once in a while, I get a scathing response, the most memorable of which came from a student who apparently needed my class to graduate but didn’t put forth the effort to pass it (these are anonymous and withheld from the professor until late in the next semester, but I recognized his handwriting). He was angry at me and lashed out.

    From an administrative perspective these evaluations are golden because they translate into repeat enrollments, but aside from the ego boost that could be derived from the positive evaluations were I ever so slightly more credulous, they’re not helpful from my perspective. Balanced, insightful reflections- the ones that help me reflect on my classroom practice- are few and far between. Throw in cultural considerations and classroom power dynamics, and you’ve got (yet) a(nother) pretty damn subjective assessment tool.

    All of this to say- yes, do it. But keep the results in perspective.

    RE: ue’s point about mentoring- absolutely. After sitting through hundreds of hours of classes and workshops, I can say that the informal conversations I’ve had with other teachers have had more effect than anything else on what I do in practice. I think because what we do is not an exact science, there’s a degree of insecurity present in all of us- there are always any number of other things that we could be doing that may be equally as effective (or more so, which is the source of said insecurity). Some of that effectiveness has to do with individual teaching styles, which are as different as our personalities. The people I’ve had meaningful exchanges with have been able to accept all of that enough to share openly, but I know far more who seem to think it’s a competition.

  • geo: What makes the input of economists less valuable than anthropologists, psychologists or other social scientists?

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