Nothing to Do With Quarterbacks

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on the crucial importance of teacher quality and the difficulty of identifying talent is typically Gladwellesque in its irresistable readability, unexpected connections, and profound blindspots. Gladwell’s hook is the “quarterback problem.” Did you know that college performance fails to predict pro performance for quarterbacks? Interesting! But what on Earth does this have to do with teachers? Nothing, as far as I can tell. One comes away from Gladwell’s essay with the ideas that (a) success as a teacher, like success as an NFL quarterback, requires a combination of traits so ineffable and rare that (b) it can be determined only by actual performance in “the show.”  But (a) is certainly false, which is a relief since we need many, many more successful teachers than the number of NFL franchises.

But who cares? The frothy quarterback stuff is a completely superfluous distraction from the point that emerges in Gladwell’s piece. That point is (b): to find out if somebody is a good teacher, you’ve got to see how well he or she actually teaches. Gladwell illustrates how this sort of thing works by inspecting the way one financial firm casts a very wide net and then narrows the field by filtering out candidate financial advisers on the basis of real preformance. Select and compensate people on the basis of their actual demonstrated skill. It’s so crazy it just might work!

So what does Gladwell have to say about this? He makes a number of outstanding suggestions and profoundly important points: 

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. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s [the financial firm recruiter’s] training camp. 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.


Is this solution to teaching’s quarterback problem politically possible? Taxpayers might well balk at the costs of trying out four teachers to find one good one. Teachers’ unions have been resistant to even the slightest move away from the current tenure arrangement. But all the reformers want is for the teaching profession to copy what firms like North Star have been doing for years. … What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children? 

Now, there’s no point in saying things that will make your readers think you are an evilcrazy person, so I can understand why Gladwell wastes words on quarterbacks instead of on the deeper mechanisms at work here. But why is it that “society devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?” The obvious answer is that care and patience are in greater supply when care and patience pay. When the provision of education was made a predominantly public, not-for-profit affair, “society” basically ensured that teacher selection would receive far less care and patience than money-handler selection. Maybe we should do something about that. 

Also, why should teachers need a college degree?