Currently at the top of the NY Times most emailed list is this piece about a new charter school in New York City. The article asks "So what kind of teachers could a school get if it paid them $125,000 a year?" and the answer is, not surprisingly, damn good ones.

The school seems to be a real-life example of what Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his New Yorker piece comparing teachers to pro quarterbacks, which I thought was a pretty silly analogy for a number of reasons, which I'll reiterate in a bit.

The charter school described in the NY Times article sounds like it's trying out Gladwell's premise (though I have no doubt it predates Gladwell's article--this stuff takes time to work out, and Gladwell's article appeared last December). Find extraordinary teachers, pay them what you have to in order to get them to be willing to take on additional responsibilities, and see what happens. So who does this school have working for them?

An accomplished violist who infuses her music lessons with the neuroscience of why one needs to practice, and creatively worded instructions like, “Pass the melody gently, as if it were a bowl of Jell-O!”

A self-described “explorer” from Arizona who spent three decades honing her craft at public, private, urban and rural schools.

Two with Ivy League degrees. And Joe Carbone, a phys ed teacher, who has the most unusual résumé of the bunch, having worked as Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer.
Not bad. You're paying them two to three times what you'd pay an average schoolteacher, but you're getting top quality.

Which is why this is not a large scale solution for the problems our educational system faces. Put simply, there aren't enough of these people to fill classrooms across the country, even if you are paying them $125K a year to do it. They aren't as elite as NFL starting quarterbacks, of course, but they are still relatively rare, given the millions of students nationwide we're talking about.

When Gladwell talked about this problem and advocated a similar system, he neglected this problem of scale as well--I guess it was inconvenient. But he did offer a solution, although he didn't seem to recognize it at the time:
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.
He took that to mean that what we really need to do is find more of those top 15% people and convince them to become teachers, when a simpler, more elegant solution is right there. Cutting class sizes in half turns an average teacher into a good one. What's easier--finding top-quality people who are willing to ride herd on a room of 30 rugrats for what they might be able to make in another field, or reducing the number of rugrats to a point where more people are able to do a good job teaching them?

Lake Wobegon doesn't actually exist, folks. There aren't enough above-average people to go around when it comes to public education, which is why even if this charter school succeeds for the kids who attend, the idea will still fail, because there's no way to scale it up for the general populace, which ought to be the whole point of experiments like this.

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