Stephen J Gould (via Will Austin) on "Spread"

Will Austin is the co-director of Roxbury Prep the managing director of Uncommon Schools Boston. I think he's the only local charter school person with a genuine Boston accent (his dad is a fire captain, if I recall). Will pointed me to biologist Stephen J. Gould's book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. Here is a review of Gould's book:

No one has hit .400 in baseball since Ted Williams did it in 1941 (for every 10 times at bat he got 4 hits), and this unsolved mystery continues stimulating books and brou-ha-has.

The mystery is now solved, says Gould. It is not because players were better then (what he calls the Genesis Myth — “There were giants in the earth in those days” — or as Ted Williams said, “the ball isn’t dead, the hitters are, from the neck up”), or because players today have tougher schedules, night games, and cross-country travel (Rod Carew says night games are easier on the eyes and travel by jet beats a train any day).

It is because the overall level of play — by everyone from Tony Gwynn and Eddie Murray to Backup Bob and Dugout Doug — has inexorably marched ever upward toward a hypothetical outer wall of human performance.

This is interesting, Will Austin says, because it is exactly what we want to happen to the teaching profession. Raise the overall level of teaching towards a hypothetical outer wall. The book review continues:

Paradoxically, .400 hitting has disappeared because today’s players are better, not worse. But all of them are better, making the créme de la créme stand out from the mediocre far less than before. The best players may be absolutely better (better training, equipment, diet) than players 50 years ago, but they are relatively worse compared to the average level of play. It was easier for Ted Williams to “hit ’em where they ain’t” 50 years ago than it is for Wade Boggs today, because every position in the field is manned by players whose average level of play is much better than before.

So what? For Gould the disappearance of .400 hitting is just one of many examples of how systems change over time and how our bias of progress and complexity has led us to misunderstand historical change. “All of these mistaken beliefs arise out of the same analytical flaw in our reasoning — our Platonic tendency to reduce a broad spectrum to a single, pinpointed essence. This way of thinking allows us to confirm our most ingrained biases — that humans are the supreme being on this planet; that all things are inherently driven to become more complex; and that almost any subject can be expressed and understood in terms of an average.”

In baseball there is a bell curve variation from worst to best players; what has happened in the past century is that while the league average has remained the same, the “spread” (in Gould’s subtitle) has shrunk as the entire system has marched closer toward that outer limit. It is this spread that matters, not the single point on it.


a. There is some argument that teachers today are worse than teachers several decades ago. (Highly talented women and African-Americans were "pushed" into teaching because of obstacles in other professions).

b. If true, if our "average talent" is lower than 40 years ago, then we'd want to respond with "higher talent" strategies, to attract more high-performers. TFA is such a strategy.

c. However, what we know about teachers is that top college grads don't seem to be unusually effective teachers. The correlation exists, but it's not huge.

d. Nor do we know if actual teaching quality is worse than before. No way to compare. No good data sets.

e. There is lots of anecdotal evidence that "classrooms look similar" to those of 30 years ago. The teaching styles are the same. So our, by and large, our NAEP and SAT scores.

f. Again, Will Austin has it right. Baseball is an example where the average player now almost certainly much better than the average player from many decades ago. Training is much better.

We want the same thing to happen to the field of teaching.