In his latest piece in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell turns his attention to hiring practices:
There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.
Gladwell argues that the idea of finding the “best people” and helping them to become the best teachers, central to so many educational reforms, might not be possible:
A group of researchers…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.
As Gladwell says, “There is nothing like being an NFL quarterback except being an NFL quarterback.” This is apparently the problem with teaching, too. Good teachers pay attention to students, can tell when students are learning and, when they aren’t, and can personalize a lesson. It is hard to tell if anyone is good at this before he or she gets into a classroom.
But Gladwell overuses the NFL quarterback metaphor to the point where it smothers the piece. Almost half of the article is devoted to the selection, training, and ultimate careers of NFL quarterbacks. Gladwell specializes in drawing connections between seemingly unconnected things in the service of “big ideas,” but sometimes things are unconnected for a reason. Here, Gladwell is trying to advance the suggestion that it’s sometimes hard to tell who will be good at jobs that require adaptive skill.
This is undoubtedly true, but the two jobs he chooses to illustrate the point escort the reader to inappropriate comparisons. The problem is that the career of an NFL quarterback has little bearing on strategies for changing education. NFL quarterbacks appear on live television once a week and angry drunk people shout advice to them and often place large bets on their success or failure; teachers get out of work at four in the afternoon. NFL quarterbacks have to remain in top physical and mental conditioning well into their thirties; teachers might coach Little League for a season or two. NFL quarterbacks marry supermodels; teachers marry assistant district attorneys. Though arguably the stakes matter less, being an NFL quarterback is frankly just a lot harder than being a third grade teacher. What can football teach us about education? Actually, not much.
It’s not even clear that a collegiate quarterback’s NFL prospects are all that hard to predict. The Lewin Career Forecast is a tool that predicts professional success based on a collegiate quarterback’s completion percentage and games started—and does so rather well. Gladwell makes much of the 1999 NFL draft, in which five quarterbacks selected in the first round ultimately enjoyed varying degrees of professional success. He uses this as an example of how choosing a good quarterback is a crapshoot. But the two great busts from that draft—Akili Smith and Cade McNown—fare poorly in the Lewin Forecast; the two relative successes—Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper—fare well. (The fifth quarterback, top overall pick Tim Couch (“a flop in the pros,” says Gladwell), played for the expansion Cleveland Browns, a team with which even John Elway would have had trouble succeeding.) The Lewin Forecast isn’t a perfect measure, but a quarterback’s success isn’t as haphazard as Gladwell claims.
Gladwell also mangles the primary statistic he cites in support of his contention—a study finding that draft position is not correlated to professional success. Trouble is, that’s not what the study (pdf) actually says. The study’s authors, economists David Berri and Rob Simmons, actually found that quarterbacks picked in the draft’s first and second rounds end up, in the aggregate, making more money than their late-round counterparts. Even acknowledging that first- and second-round picks sign larger initial contracts, this still indicates that, over the course of a career, the quarterbacks who are expected to succeed do end up succeeding more often than others.