Malcolm Gladwell comes to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.

9 12 2008

I’ll give him this: Malcolm Gladwell is always interesting. Apart from a strange comparison to picking good quarterbacks, his new article in The New Yorker is on how to find good teachers. Unfortunately, he starts off by barking up the wrong tree:

One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is “value added” analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs. Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students’ rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.

It’s only a crude measure, of course. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test. Nonetheless, if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students’ test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are.

This is the problem a journalist faces when he mostly translates academic research for a broader audiences. He’s stuck with that discipline’s bad assumptions. Gladwell is working from the premise that the only way to evaluate teacher performance is to look at kids standardized test scores. It’s not. Yet if you challenge test scores as the only valid measure of educational effectiveness, people act like you’re some kind of nut. Critical thinking can’t be measured by a number. In fact, teachers who can raise test scores might even be less effective at teaching skills that can’t be measured on standardized tests.

Yet despite Gladwell’s premise, I still agree with his conclusion:

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

This paragraph from earlier in the article seems to be the main basis for that conclusion:

A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

What I think Gladwell’s attacking here isn’t the effectiveness of an MA or knowledge in general, he’s attacking the effectiveness of an MA in education. You can’t teach teaching. The best way to learn teaching skills is to teach. Besides, if test scores were an effective measure of learning, the scores would reflect the teacher’s knowledge base because (in history at least) where else is the student going to pick up the content? After all, how can knowing more about what you teach possibly hurt? And even if it did, isn’t that way down the list of problems in the American educational system today?



4 responses

10 12 2008
Autonomy: What a concept! « More or Less Bunk

[…] What a concept! 10 12 2008 Greg Anrig, inspired by the Malcolm Gladwell article I discussed on Monday (or was it Tuesday, this WordPress calendar sometimes confuses me), quotes Harvard Professor […]

11 12 2008

Having gotten a BA and a Master’s Degree, I’m not sure that I understand the conclusion that having deep knowledge of a subject makes you a good teacher. I’ve come across plenty of brilliant people, who’ve done extraordinary amounts of research who can’t understand why their students aren’t as brilliant as they are or simply don’t have an interest in being a great teacher. Seems to me it’s somewhat important to understand how young people learn and for teachers gain strategies to improve learning.

Teaching isn’t necessarily an intuitive activity for most people, particularly when dealing with students who face numerous barriers outside the classroom. Should teaching be more open? Maybe. But are we really going to see many more people run to the profession? I think there are easier ways to earn a living, even if there is increased financial incentives to become a teacher. The idea that every “smart person” in America will want to become a teacher is laughable.

31 05 2013
Therapy Now

Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles?
I mean, what you say is fundamental and all. However imagine if you added some great pictures or
videos to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is
excellent but with images and videos, this site could certainly
be one of the greatest in its field. Excellent blog!

6 08 2013
4 point plan

Hi all, here every one is sharing such experience, therefore it’s pleasant to read this blog, and I used to visit this blog all the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: