In the Dec. 15 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell takes a look at three fairly different careers (NFL quarterbacking, teaching, and financial advising) that share at least one important characteristic, namely that it is very difficult to tell in advance who will be good at these jobs. Gladwell’s article, “Most Likely to Succeed,” begins with the quarterback problem, but his observations on the differences between good and bad teachers—and the difficulty of separating the one from the other before tenure is awarded—are at least as interesting, and surely more consequential.
While Gladwell acknowledges that teacher effectiveness is a very hard thing to quantify, one expert named in his article estimates that in the course of a year students may learn three times as much from a good teacher as from a bad one—or to be more precise, that students of very bad teachers will on average learn only half a year’s material in one school year whereas students of very good teachers will learn a year and a half’s material. According to Gladwell,
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. [Emphasis mine.]
Gladwell says that educational reformers in the U.S. have increasingly focused on teacher quality, trying to replace the worst teachers and recruit 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 article then examines some of the traits that seem to distinguish effective teachers from ineffective ones, and I was glad to see that interactivity was mentioned prominently. That called to mind, for me, a favorite professor’s observation that a company that sells pre-recorded lectures should not be called “The Teaching Company” because lecturing alone does not deserve to be called teaching. (I like The Teaching Company anyway, but my friend’s point seems incontestable.) By contrast, teaching certificates and master’s degrees don’t seem to make a difference. Gladwell argues that these facts suggest
we shouldn’t be raising [hiring] standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track 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. That means that the profession needs to start . . . an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. [Economists at Harvard and Dartmouth] 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.
Gladwell’s earlier observation that good teachers cost no more than average ones comes back once again. “Why don’t teachers earn more?” we frequently ask. Maybe it’s because they all earn about the same thing.
Why is this? I wondered about it recently while doing some fundraising for my son’s school and thinking about the way private schools and colleges set tuition and teacher salaries. As private schools head into the admissions season, many wonder how the economic downturn will affect the number of applications they receive. There is, most assuredly, a demand curve for private education, notwithstanding the fact that governments in developed countries give education away free of charge. Why then don’t teacher salaries take care of themselves in this environment? For example, why don’t groups of teachers form schools the way groups of lawyers form law firms? The teachers could all be partners, with a headmaster elected by the faculty. If their school got rave reviews from students, parents, and alumni, the school would receive more and more applications. The school would be able to raise tuition (the way lawyers raise rates) and all the partners would make more money. On the other hand, if the instruction at the school turned out to be bad, or merely unremarkable compared with the free public substitute, the school would probably fold. (Bad law firms do fold. Interestingly, however, the merely unremarkable law firms just find merger partners and get bigger.)
If a school is to have not just classrooms but a gym and a ball field and an auditorium and a lunchroom, then starting a school is a pretty capital-intensive venture which might not be feasible for private pedagogical partnerships. Gladwell’s idea is better, because it accommodates the already-extensive involvement of governments at all levels of education: as proprietor in primary and secondary education, and as benefactor for post-secondary education. But the weakness in Gladwell’s idea is the problem of incentives (precisely the one the partnership model handles well): If Smith Elementary is publicly funded, what incentive do the teachers at Smith Elementary have to “rigorously evaluate” their apprentices and promote only one of four? Should the decision be made by someone else, like an elected school board? Should there perhaps be a plebiscite among the parents?
I think I once heard Republicans talking about “voucher” programs that would help to address the incentive problem, as sort of a compromise between the public and private models for education. It always struck me as a good idea. It’s a shame the Republicans were only pretending to care about it.