Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Matter of Conclusions

One thing that never fails to amaze me is how two people can start with an almost identical premise and set of facts and then leap to two radically different conclusions. My case in point is Malcolm Gladwell's meditation on teacher recruitment in last week's New Yorker.

Gladwell starts from the position that teacher quality has huge impacts on student achievement. Great teachers produce great results and bad teachers produce bad results. I'm with him so far. He then goes on to compare the process of finding great teachers to the process of finding great NFL quarterbacks. That is to say, it's pretty much impossible to do in advance. The only way to really know if someone is going to be a great quarterback is by putting them into an NFL game and seeing how they do. That's because there's nothing really like being in the NFL. Similarly, there's no truly equivalent experience to teaching in a classroom. (I've been there. I know.)

So far, I'm totally with him. Good teachers are important and it's next to impossible to tell who they'll be in advance. Makes perfect sense. But it's also where things start to come off the rails.

Gladwell's solution to the problem is that we should forget about teacher training programs, forget about teacher tenure, and rework the salary structure for educators. In theory I'm in favor of a reworked salary structure and I can even go along with some changes to the practice of tenure. But ditching teacher training? Isn't that the exact wrong thing to do?

The mistake Gladwell seems to be making is in thinking that teaching ability (like NFL quarterbacking) is an immutable trait – either you've got it or you don't. This is patently absurd and disregards any notion that teachers (or quarterbacks) can improve. Just because a teacher has a bad first year doesn't mean they won't have a great second year. Or fourth year. Rather than focus our efforts on bouncing people from the system, let's focus on making sure the people we do have are best equipped to handle the job we're giving them.

When I see that teacher quality is important and that we don't know who great teachers are going to be ahead of time, the conclusion I come to is that we'd better be investing our energy and resources into helping ensure that all teachers can become great teachers. It just makes sense.

No comments: