behind the news

Heisman Educators

Gladwell fails to convert on article about teachers and NFL quaterbacks
December 19, 2008

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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

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.

Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.