Gladwell’s New Model Teachers

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.


2 Responses to “Gladwell’s New Model Teachers”

  1. Rod Apfelbeck Says:

    What is your basis for saying, “It’s a shame the Republicans were only pretending to care about it”?

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Rod, my first reaction is that I should have limited my statement to elected Republican officeholders. Perhaps that is enough to clear this up, but I’ll continue just in case.

    My second reaction is that your question reminds me of a memorable scene in the movie “Bulworth.” As you may or may not recall, the protagonist is a senator facing re-election, and he acts pretty much like most senators until he learns that he is about to die. At that point, he departs from the standard political playbook and starts telling his constituents the truth. During a politically incorrect appearance at a predominantly black church, the following exchange takes place:

    Angry black woman: Are you sayin’ the Democratic Party don’t care about the African-American community?

    Bulworth: Isn’t that OBVIOUS? You got half your kids are out of work and the other half are in jail. Do you see ANY Democrat doing anything about it? Certainly not me! So what’re you gonna do, vote Republican? Come on! Come on, you’re not gonna vote Republican! Let’s call a spade a spade!
    [Loud, angry booing]

    Bulworth: I mean – come on! You can have a Billion Man March! If you don’t put down that malt liquor and chicken wings, and get behind someone other than a running back who stabs his wife, you’re NEVER gonna get rid of somebody like me!

    Satire aside, I see the failure of the Republican party to deliver smaller government and greater personal freedom during its years of political dominance in very much the same way that Bulworth saw the Democratic party’s failure to address racial inequality. I think it only stands to reason that if a party controls the White House and both houses of Congress for a number of years and it does not deliver on its campaign promises, it did not really mean what it said during the campaign. If the lack of results isn’t conclusive, it at least shifts the burden of persuasion.

    If you want to get more specific than that, you’ll have to lead the way. I’m no educational expert (and some readers of this blog are), but I think there were education proposals in every Bush 43 state of the union address, and of course significant education legislation passed during the eight-year term. It looks to me like the policy direction was consistently toward centralized government control rather than decentralized parental choice, but if that’s not true I’ll be happy to accept correction.

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