In the new issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on teacher quality is notable for what it’s not. Mostly, it’s not about teaching. The majority of the article is about football. Gladwell spills an inordinate amount of ink describing how college quarterbacks are evaluated and how hard it is to determine who will succeed in the NFL based solely on their college performance. Gladwell is making the same point about teachers: for all the attention to advanced degrees and other certification requirements, you can’t really know who will be a good teacher until they get to the classroom.
When he finally gets around to looking at teachers, Gladwell looks at videotapes of teachers with the Dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, Bob Pianta, who has developed a system for evaluating student-teacher interactions. “Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success,” Gladwell writes.
“Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible,” Gladwell writes. ”But after you’ve watched Pianta’s tapes, and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar.”
Point taken. Gladwell concludes that 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.” He also estimates we’d need to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. “That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now,” he notes.
Over at This Week in Education, A-Rus says “Gladwell has no real way of getting us out of the current system of certification and tenure.” Fine, but that’s not his job. If you point out that the Emperor has no clothes you’re not a failure if you don’t throw a robe over him. Gladwell’s piece adds light, not just heat, to discussions about teacher preparation, training, certification and tenure. Perhaps most importantly, the article has precious little to say about test scores, offering instead a nuanced view of what is and is not effective practice. If articles like this also help move us past the “by their test scores shall ye know them” way of thinking about the teaching profession, and help start a conversation about what good teaching looks like, Gladwell’s done a useful service.