The 1% versus the 20% (Not the 99%)

I was reading: How Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed Changed NFL Defenses. (Kenny W: you'll like this article).

Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu seem to have supernatural powers — they're everywhere on the football field at once, omnipresent demigods determined to knock your chinstrap off....To opposing coaches and quarterbacks, Reed and Polamalu are men of mayhem, hungry for prey. Their success is a credit to their talent and work ethic, but also the result of defensive strategies that have helped them make their marks.

This made me wonder:

Was there one teacher in your life who made a huge, disproportionate difference? An omnipresent demigod who metaphorically knocked your chinstrap off?

For me, it was Mr. Leininger, 11th grade English. I learned a bunch of English, but he made me think I was a writer. So in college, I did some writing. After college, I became a magazine writer. A big reason I ended up in charter school world is that I was able to write a coherent 50-page application. I.e., my writing skill helped me overcome some other giant gaps: like actually knowing anything about kids or schools or teaching.

Charlie Sposato, our charter school's founding principal, was such a teacher.

"He was one of the best teachers I've ever seen in action," said Arthur Del Prete, former assistant superintendent and Farley Middle School principal.

"I will always be thankful for his full spirit and his high energy," said MATCH senior Kayonna Mendez. "He has inspired me in ways I can't explain."

"Charlie was one of those people, if you didn't know him, you wouldn't think he was real," said Mike Dineen, also a former principal at Farley. "He was one of those extraordinary, good, kind people who'd do anything for anybody. He always ended up working with the kids other people weren't as successful with."

Some months ago, I was talking with economist Roland Fryer about this phenomenon. If I recall, it was his fifth grade teacher who made all the difference. "I was a knucklehead. She changed my life. She got me to straighten up and believe in myself."

We were musing about the challenge of identifying superstar teachers. Not the Top 20%, lovely as they are. The Top 1%.

Right now there's no particularly good way. There are some committees that nominate people for Teacher Of The Year awards. Not bad. Not particularly reliable, though. There are Rate My Teacher websites, but often low sample sizes.

We wondered if there might be, in value-added data, some teachers who generate unusually large trailing gains. That is, Mrs. X might not only help kids during their year with her (Grade 5), but inspire/change them so they learn at a much faster rate for the rest of their lives. There are statistical ways to explore this.

There are also more straightforward ways. Schools could survey high school seniors and ask: which teacher made the biggest difference on your life? My guess is in many school districts, a few names would pop up over and over. Maybe some schools already do this.

Why would we care about identifying the Top 1%?

1. We should always try to recognize and reward excellence. For its own sake.

2. Recognizing excellence tends to generate additional excellence in other. For example, there may be other good teachers who become intrigued by these standouts, and themselves begin to pursue becoming a "life-changing" teacher. Right now, a good teacher has no way of knowing if a) he's awesome, or b) someone else is actually much better, and could be emulated in some way.

3. Test scores are quite useful but narrow. We (society) probably want a mix of teachers, those who are great at helping kids gain knowledge, and others who happen to be great at inspiration and/or changing work habits. Just the effort of trying to identify a 1% -- an inherently imperfect exercise; think about all the lists of Great Books -- itself helps us think more precisely about the behaviors and outcomes we really care about.