I have a confession to make. This could cost me serious street cred in the field of education, but it’s time I spill the beans: I am not obsessed with technology...
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?”