Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker, Quarterbacks and Teachers

Two quarterbacks were taken in yesterday's NFL draft. Sam Bradford is considered "can't miss." He was the first player selected.

Tim Tebow (in photo) is a hotly disputed talent. Some scouts insist he'll never be a good NFL quarterback. But the Denver Broncos thought otherwise. Tebow was the 2nd quarterback taken.

His "intangibles" (work ethic, leadership, will to win) are considered "off the chart." But skeptics don't think he'll throw well against lightning-fast NFL defenses.

How does this relate to teachers?

In his book What the Dog Saw, Gladwell wrote about how hard it is for school administrators to discriminate the better teacher candidates from the lesser candidates. Gladwell used the NFL draft to illustrate how difficult it is for anyone to predict human performance, even in a sport where there is ample performance metrics and every step, throw, and catch is videotaped from 12 different angles.

This article/book was circulated a lot in Ed Reform land. Gladwell showed how lots of the "can't miss" studs projected to be the next Peyton Manning turn out precisely to miss: Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Jamarcus Russell. Meanwhile Tom Brady wasn't selected by an NFL team until 200 other college players had already been scooped up.

Gladwell's education conclusion was: "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."

Indeed, this is an aspect of the direction of the Obama Administration. They want to accelerate "alternative pathways." The idea is to lower the "barriers to entry" of folks who want to become public schoolteachers. The main barrier is to spend $X on either an undergraduate or graduate degree from an Ed School.

But the Administration is not entirely pushing Gladwell's approach. Many of these rookie teachers still get trained before they start. Just in different dosages and different methods than in traditional Ed Schools.

Gladwell argued:

Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

Gladwell doesn't explore in his article whether principals interviewing teachers can identify better teachers, however. That would be more akin to saying that scouts can't predict which collegiate QBs will be good NFL QBs.

Anyway, good article, move on. This where most ed reformers stopped following the story.

But in a different universe, the NFL QB issue was far from settled. It turned out that you could make a good case that Gladwell was wrong. Now everyone knows Malcolm Gladwell. Who doesn't love him? His writing grabs you. He's an amazing storyteller and provocative thinker.

Well, Steven Pinker is a big shot, too. And he doesn't like Gladwell. At. All.

In an exchange of letters following Pinker's critical review of What the Dog Saw, Pinker took issue with Gladwell's claim that there was "no connection" between when a QB is taken in the draft and his per-play performance. Pinker wrote that this is "simply not the case."

So who is right on the football aspect of this argument?

A guy named Bryan Burke tried to settle the argument yesterday. Burke is a Billy Beane type: takes a Sabermetric (quant-oriented) approach to analyzing sports.

If you like stats and football, you need to read Burke's article. His punchline:

Gladwell has it wrong. The higher a quarterback is selected, the better he does. The scouts do, in fact, know something.

Now in fairness to Gladwell, he was citing the research of economist David Berri. And Berri is a brilliant thinker about sports, particularly basketball. But Berri got this one wrong.

Back to our world. If we strike down the NFL analogy, does the teacher part still hold? Are we so bad at predicting who will be a good teacher that we should just skip it?

Gladwell is definitely right that Ed School degrees and certifications don't correlate with rookie teacher effectiveness. I'm not sure about a principal's ability to predict that during the hiring process, however.

A fun experiment would be to watch one hundred 5-minute videos of Teach For America math teacher rookies based on their summer student teaching. Each video would be the first 5 minutes of class.

It could be an online parlor game. You sort whether you think the rookie will end up, one year later, ranked in the top bottom quartile or top quartile of those 100 teachers (in terms of value-added gains generated in kids).

If you did well on that online game, school systems might want to hire you to pick their teachers. Gladwell is saying, I think, that nobody would do well at that game. Anyway, I think my team here at MATCH would do well at that game.