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.
Gladwell is famously a man of big ideas, but he’s not always so good with the details. The trouble is that without supporting details, or with inaccurate supporting details, big theories fall apart. The author ignores the reality that teachers unions and other entrenched interests might act as a barrier to his quick-hire, quick-fire strategy for educational improvement. He doesn’t consider the role that the school environment plays in supporting good teaching and deemphasizing bad. He doesn’t say whether these adaptive skills can be taught, or whether they’re entirely intrinsic. He also ignores the question of where the United States might find this vast supply of teachers to fire.
If Gladwell had framed the article as “it’s hard to find good teachers,” and presented some reasons why it’s hard, and how the process could be improved, his story would have been satisfying and complete. Instead Gladwell characteristically treated the unexpected implications of some social sciences research as if the surprise—that getting teacher certification or a master’s degree doesn’t matter when it comes to student learning—was an important new discovery. It’s not. Reformers have known for years that more credentials don’t mean better education. The problem is no one is quite sure how to fix that. That’s the important part.
On his New Yorker blog the other day, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote this about Gladwell: “So what if whatever startling thesis he happens to be advancing doesn’t always apply to every situation? Isn’t it enough that he provokes thought and gives pleasure?” OK, I’ll take the bait. No, it isn’t. It is not enough that Gladwell provokes thought if the primary thought is about Malcolm Gladwell’s sloppiness. Gladwell indeed raised some very interesting, oft-ignored points in his article about education. He always does. But it is unfortunate that he also erected several barriers—like making it a pseudo-lesson about gridiron human resources—to the article’s success.