Predicting Success

Money in Uncle Sam Hat
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money 150x150 Predicting SuccessMany have wondered if teaching is best described as a science or an art. As is almost always the case is such debates, both are rather accurate.

In some ways, teaching is most certainly a science. Specific methodologies can be employed which will result in reproducible outcomes. Such methodologies can even be tailored and modified to optimize success in distinct disciplines. We can clearly define learning goals and set testable standards for achievement.

And yet, teaching is also part art. We all know that great teachers are born, not made. While we can evaluate certain characteristics that will contribute to teacher success, the essence of what makes them great remains elusive.

So how can we predict whether or not a teacher will succeed? You can be fairly confident that if a law firm hired the top graduate from the finest law school, his or her success is almost assured. But teaching is not law. How does one know if even the most promising artist will amount to anything?

In a fascinating article published by Malcolm Gladwell in the December 15, 2008 issue of New Yorker magazine1, he addresses this issue. He calls it the quarterback problem. Professional American football teams spend small fortunes on trying to predict whether a highly successful college quarterback will carry over that success to the professional game. With very limited success. Gladwell writes:

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

He goes on to explain the difference the good teacher can make:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Gladwell finds possible models in the financial-advice field, which also suffers from the quarterback problem. What the most successful firms have found is that there is simply no way to predict success other than apprenticing promising candidates and watching their progress over an appropriate period of time. The weeding-out process is long and expensive but ultimately rewarding. If we truly want the best teachers, we have to have the patience and foresight to seek the finest artists. The Masters degree, the expertise regarding educational theory and even a teacher well tooled with the most advanced teaching methodologies will ultimately tell you nothing about their chances for success in the classroom. You will only know once you have put them in front of the students and observed their success over a suitable length of time. Only after such a period should any consideration be given to job security or tenure.

Gladwell reflects on the immense obstacles that would arise if one applied the financial-adviser model to the teaching profession and concludes: “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?”


4 Responses to Predicting Success

  1. Anita Goodson says:

    Teachers should have to be interns first like architects, electricians and other professions and should have to have a certain amount of time (1 to 2 years) to observe and work closely with an older experience teacher (obviously, hopfully a GOOD teacher) before being licensed to teach. This obviously would incur some more expense up front, but would be well worth it in the long run. The semester that most student teacher’s get in someone else’s classroom is not nearly enough.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      Exactly so. We seek to save a few dollars up front by throwing teachers straight out of university into full day teaching positions. We pay dearly on the other end! What does this say about the way society views the value of the teaching profession?

  2. Hi,
    I am a semi retired teacher/mini painting artist, which means that I am still involved in the school system when I am a sub teacher. Over the years, my classes have always been successful, because the students were taught about the world, by being involved in music, history and many others things necessary to develop life skills while learning academics. These ELL students performed higher and knew more than most English speaking students, because I went the extra mile for them.
    I agree that children are better off in a school that is bad withn an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher, as the article proclaims. Unfortunately there are more bad teachers than good ones in this day and age because teaching is more about being part of the “great team” and not so much about the students learning much of anything required to be successful in the future. Moreover teachers know that if they can handle the social aspect of teamwork, they are usually thought of as “great” teachers, even when their students are out of control and do not gain much knowledge. The “Team” seems to be everything to those that are in charge of the schools. You must be popular to be good!
    Teaching is a form of art that is inborn, so that the skills of a natural teacher cannot be taught. But unfortunately in our times, the districts do not really care about great teaching skills, but invest money in those that waste their time teaching to the tests that really do not determine if a student will have future success(that is the easy way out) and also have the skills to run a team meeting, as though schools were a money making business and some are just that.

    Constance Deise

    • Karmi Gross says:

      You have outlined so much of what we know to be good teaching and I am not surprised to hear that you found success in the classroom. As you write, there are many teachers who lack the innate ability or the work ethic and caring dedication required to master the profession. Some compensate for this fault by trying to redefine achievement to the detriment of their student’s future. The ideas presented in the article hope to address this issue by focusing our efforts on choosing, nurturing and rewarding those who can develop into excellent educators.

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