Patrick Joyce

December 18, 2008

Teachers and Quarterbacks

- Quarterbacks by Ableman / Teacher by Editor B

Most Likely to Succeed, the most recent Malcom Gladwell piece in The New Yorker, is a really interesting look at the similarities between trying to draft an NFL quarterback and trying to hire a good public school teacher. The main similarity being that we are incredibly bad at predicting success in either field.

For all the effort on scouting, combines, and testing of college quarterbacks it turns out that there is no demonstrated correlation between wonderlic test scores or draft position with an NFL quarterback’s career performance. Similarly, teachers who earn a Masters Degree or an advanced teaching certificate don’t perform any better than those with a vanilla bachelor’s degree. So NFL teams end up selecting Ryan Leaf with the number one pick and giving him an 11 million dollar signing bonus while passing on Tom Brady until the 199th pick. Similarly, and more important for society, we end up with teachers who have Masters Degrees, but couldn’t teach you how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I’ve always found the way we select teachers strange. You don’t need a master’s degree in math to teach high school geometry. The skills needed to earn an advanced degree and the skills needed to be a good teacher are completely different. Sure, sometimes those skills develop in the same person, but I’m willing to wager that is the exceptional case.

Let me make a quick conterfactual argument: If education and intelligence correlated with teaching performance, then college TA’s (generally Masters or PhD candidates who are incredibly intelligent and know the material inside out) would be great teachers. I think anyone who ever had a Calculus, Physics or Comp Sci class in college will immediately agree that this most certainly is not the case.

In fact, I think you can make a good argument that the skills and attributes you need to earn a Master’s Degree in math (to take one example) are a significant negative predictor of success in teaching.

Let’s face it, there is no subject taught in high school that requires a graduate level understanding of the material. The most difficult subject taught in high school is probably Calc AB and that is something that we expect college freshmen to master. The skills needed to be a great teacher are almost entirely social: you need to be able to engage your students, explain the material in multiple ways, control a classroom, and have a remarkable amount of patience with your students. These are not the skills that graduate level academics select for.

I know brilliant people who became teachers and failed miserably. I’m also fairly certain that some of the best teachers I had were actually pretty low on the IQ scale. If we as a nation are serious about improving education we need to look at ways to find and train better teachers.

There is a lot more I could say about this: about how we face the same problem in hiring programmers, or about what the implications of admitting we are terrible at predicting success are. But it is late, and I am tired, so maybe another day.

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