Friday, December 12, 2008

The Quarterback Problem

Malcolm Gladwell has a new piece out in the New Yorker: "Annals of Education - Most Likely to Succeed". Gladwell explores how good teachers are distinguished from bad ones comparing it to picking quarterbacks. Gladwell focuses on the records of promising players when they actually make it to the NFL. He finds out, not surprisingly, that many flop.

I like that he pointed out the distinction of evaluating and managing quarterbacks versus others/followers. I think this just reinforces my developing view that the nature of the job necessarily influences how those performing the task should be managed - ie that repetitive tasks/positions are easier to staff and should be more finely controlled than ones that require more creativity/flexibility. It's probably something that I should have recognized a lot earlier but the egalitarian in me wants to believe different - besides, most management books don't seem to make the distinction (not that ought to be an excuse).

The primary lesson though, is that what makes good teacher and quarterbacks may often have very little to do with how they were chosen to begin with. Put another way, the signals/characteristics on which teachers/quarterbacks are chosen have nothing to do with how they will ultimately perform - this is scary because while quarterbacks do not have tenure, teachers do. Why do teachers matter?

If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality.
This has wider implications to all hiring of any type of position that requires leadership/creativity, but perhaps especially so for education as the new US administration now plans to "fix" problems by throwing money at it and also expanding its scope through universal primary education (

Speaking of Malcolm Gladwell, if you've enjoyed his books (as I confess I greatly enjoyed Tipping Point) you may also be interested a less flattering view of his work (The Register).

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