Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker that, as is usual for his work, seems intriguing until you actually realize what it is he's arguing, and then it falls apart. (Breaking down his signature style is a post for another day.) In this case, he's talking about teachers--the piece is in "Annals of Education," after all--and he compares them to quarterbacks, but not just any quarterbacks--quarterbacks who have made the jump from college to the pros.

I hope you see the problem with his analogy too.

In case you don't, let me break it down for you. There are 32 NFL teams, each with starting and backup quarterbacks, and many times, 3rd-stringers on the practice squad, for a total of 96 (at most) people playing the position. Not all of these players are good at what they do--they're good enough to get to the NFL, but most fans will tell you that their favorite team's QB is either a) a bum and ought to go back to bagging groceries, or b) great, but their team is screwed if he gets hurt. Quarterbacks are also, with rare exceptions, the highest-paid players on the team.

What do these two groups have to do with each other? Well, Gladwell puts it this way.

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.
And that's Gladwell's mode--take two things that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, come up with a pithy name for a problem, and connect the two. But it really fails in this case, because the two worlds he's describing couldn't be more different.

Gladwell sees the problem this way: the gulf between good teachers and bad teachers is massive, and the problem is that we can't determine in advance who is going to be a good teacher and who will be a bad one. If we could do that, we'd improve our school system. And somehow, it would be cheaper for us to do that than to implement other solutions--he never gets into the specifics of that bit. But here's where I see the massive flaw in his argument:
Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
At first glance, that seems to make Gladwell's point--better teachers make more of a difference than class size, so we just need to identify better teachers and get them into the system. And since you're not doubling the number of needed teachers, even if you have to pay the good teachers more, you'll still come out ahead.

Here's the problem. This isn't Lake Wobegon, where all the kids are above-average. Part of the reason we don't have more good teachers in the K-12 school system is because, while we demand an elite education for them--Bachelors degree with certification at minimum, Masters preferred--we pay them poorly, support them less, and then act like they ought to be grateful for it because they're getting some sort of inner satisfaction for doing such a meaningful job. Elite students, with rare exceptions, don't go into K-12 teaching. That would be like Gladwell's elite college quarterback taking a job doing the team laundry, pay-wise (and status-wise, frankly).

The real question shouldn't be how do we make the current system work better--it should be how do we change the system so that it will work better. So let's return to his original point about teachers.
And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
A good teacher is going to cost more than an average one, if you're trying to lure better people into the market--and unlike the NFL, where there are more people trying to be quarterbacks than there are people who can do the job, the current teacher shortage has only been going on for the last few thousand years. It's hard to be demanding in your application process when you need bodies.

Gladwell's suggestion might work if we're talking about one wealthy school district--go out and hire better teachers. But presumably he's talking about making the entire system better, and that means pulling people from different professions, different majors, different walks of life and convincing them (using something other than financial inducements, it seems) to become teachers. How's that going to work?

Or you can hire more average teachers--which will cost more than we spend now, but again, so will Gladwell's solution (though he glosses that)--but give them fewer students and thereby raise the quality of their teaching. Which is more likely to work in both the short and long terms? I know where my money is.

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