Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gladwell on Teacher Quality

My colleague Mary Lyons just forwarded me this intriguing article by Malcolm Gladwell about teaching. Gladwell argues that teacher quality matters much more than class size or school quality when it comes to our children's learning. Here's one excerpt from Gladwell's essay:

Hanushek (Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford) recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

The question then becomes: How does one find great teachers? Gladwell explains that schools face the same problem that NFL scouts encounter. NFL teams have a very hard time determining which college quarterbacks will excel in the professional game. They find it easier to determine which receiver or defensive linemen will excel. The quarterback position involves so many intangibles as well as mental aspects to the game; it's more than physical prowess that drives success at the professional level.

Similarly, Gladwell argues that it is difficult to identify great teachers. He points to research that shows that the usual qualifications don't correlate with success in the classroom. For instance, being certified or having earned a graduate degree do not lead to more effective teaching on average. He concludes that we can only identify great teachers by actually watching them teach for awhile. Observation often yields very meaningful insights which cannot be discerned from a resume. Gladwell points to one researcher's work that suggests that effective teachers have a quick sense of when behavioral problems are emerging in a classroom. The researcher describes this teacher quality as "withitness." One can detect this through observation, but it's a highly intangible, yet crucial, aspect of teacher quality.

While this essay provides insight as to teacher recruiting and selection, it also brings to light some issues for many business firms. Does your firm have a particular position that is similar to the NFL quarterback, where it is particuarly difficult to discern the likelihood of the candidate's success at your firm based on the credentials outlined on the resume? Are some positions easier to fill than others, much as NFL teams have discovered? How can you observe performance, and perhaps your firm's equivalent of "withitness", in the early days of a person's tenure at your firm, so as to discern whether they will succeed in the long term?


Suomi said...

Interesting article with some very valid points that can certainly be extrapolated into the business world. What makes a good leader? What makes someone good at their job? What makes someone successful at anything? One could argue that some people are born leaders and I would agree with that statement. As for what makes someone a good teacher or good at any job, I would say it comes down to desire. Does someone want to do their job well? How do you measure your effectiveness? If a teacher, are your students learning the subject matter and is it reflected in their grades? Teachers are no different than any other profession. People fall into each of the following categories in every profession: good, average, and below average. The good ones are always evaluating their performance in order to do better and be the best they can. The average ones do an okay job but rarely exhibit the passion to be better. And the below average individual typically does the minimum required and it usually is visible to those around them.

I completely understand the importance of teaching and education as the cornerstone for American success and competitiveness today and in the future. Another issue to consider here is the payscale for a teacher in the USA. While this is arguably one of the most important professions in our society, it is also one of the worst paying. It might be easier to attract better talent to teaching if it paid better. Perhaps education and every other profession should adopt a Six Sigma approach and trim the bottom 5% - 10% of the work force every year in order to produce better results everywhere.

Jim Lorenz said...

Government (public) schools are staffed with bureaucrats by bureaucrats with sinecures.
The best hope for selecting and promoting the best teachers will be a return to direct billing of parents for their children's education. That is the only way proven to lead to non-violent competition among educators to attract the best and produce the best.
SJSC, BA. Ed. 1960.

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