Teachers as Quarterbacks?

kid_quarterbackAs a science teacher and information junkie, I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, including the 2006 book Blink and last month’s release Outliers.  Both books are great reads for educators, and can impact the way we see our students and their abilities.

I am sure that I am neither the first or the last edublogger to take on Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker entitled “Most Likely to Succeed“.  The author’s reputation and the subject matter all but guarantee that most teachers, administrators, ed school folks, and policy wonks will dissect it, spinning its message for their own use.  I want only to make a couple of points linked specifically to my experiences as a middle school science teacher.

First, it should be clear to anyone who reads this article that its educational conclusions are based on a very limited set of research studies, and as such do not portray everything that we know about how the quality of the teacher affects the outcome of the class.   That said, however, I know from reading research papers, numerous trade articles, and personal experience that the “quality” of the classroom teacher does have a significant effect on the atmosphere and learning that take place in that class.  An excellent teacher no doubt benefits the students. The opposite is also true.  (I’ve seen what happens when a parade of less effective temporary teachers comes through.)

Second, I take offense with the analogy made between college quarterbacks and professional educators.  While it is true that some teachers and quarterbacks come out of school with native ability and potential, the skills described by the Gladwell in his article can be (and should be) taught to novice and experienced teachers alike.  We can learn to do a better job.  In this way, I think that it is more fair to compare out vocation to others with professional certification like doctors who are not judged absolutely by their performance in their first year after college.  Rather their first few years consist of a strict training program in which they are evaluated critically and shown how to improve.  Of course, those who choose not to make themselves better do not belong in the profession.

Third, the most important factor to consider in the growing debate over merit pay, which is sure to be a central issue for the new Secretary of Education, is how we measure success in the classroom.  It is a simple, undeniable fact that multiple-choice Science test scores do not provide a meaningful or reliable measure of either student learning or teacher skill.  We simply must find a more efficient and accurate way to determine what students have learned and how well they have been taught.  Then, and only then, can we have an unbiased, objective way to reward those who do it well.