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If You Want to Be a Football Hero

By Susan Graham — December 29, 2008 5 min read
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I’ve finally found the time to read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay on predicting success in quarterbacks and teachers. He follows football talent spotter Dan Shonka as he scouts college athletes for professional football teams. Shonka admits that it’s something of a crapshoot:

This is the quarterback problem. 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.

With all due respect to an often intriguing writer, it seems to me that Gladwell fumbles the analogy.

Shonka is picking and choosing among the top quarterbacks in the country. In screening players, he doesn’t even consider walk-ons. Most of the screening, in fact, has already been done for him. Even so, we learn that success in picking future NFL stars is far from certain. So why does this situation suggest to Gladwell that “a degree and a pulse” might be sufficient qualifications to give someone a chance at their own classroom? Where, in the teaching scenario, do we see the middle and high school coaches and college recruiters who long ago sifted through the walk-on quarterbacks and weeded out the totally unsuited? We don’t. Instead we would see (in Gladwell’s scheme and in all too many “emergency” school staffing programs) legions of walk-ons with no training or specific skills getting a try-out as your kid’s teacher for the next 200 days.

Resources also make a difference in the successful transition to pro ball. Players get top notch equipment, training and support as they begin their careers as pros. They aren’t asked to share helmets, they don’t take their uniforms home to wash before the next game, and they aren’t expected to word-process the gameday programs, make the travel arrangements, tally up tickets sales, or sell concessions during halftime to fund the new Astroturf. Still, success is not guaranteed.

Professional development is ongoing and specific. There is plenty of time set aside to practice, and the quarterbacks don’t spend that practice time on tackling drills just because data driven assessment indicates the defensive line didn’t hold last Sunday. Coaching is targeted, intensive and based on a cycle of observation, practice, and feedback. Before a franchise walks away from its investment, resources are amassed and incentives are offered for improvement. Still, success is not guaranteed.

Football is a team sport and while quarterbacks matter, their success is dependent on the linemen that give them coverage and the receivers downfield. Think of linemen as the administrators who must create a protective pocket in which a teacher can work (rather than trying to tell him how to call the plays). Think of receivers as students who are ready to learn (rather than being expected to play without proper protective gear, a decent pre-game meal, access to the team doctors and trainers, or to face a stadium full of people who assume they are born to lose).

Some other not-quite-random thoughts about football and teaching:

• In the sport of school, 100% pass completion is considered a reasonable goal, and please don’t expect any allowances to be made for any downfield interference. We tend to blame the quarterback for just not really trying if there is not a 10% per game improvement in receptions.

• Read a few biographies of professional athletes and you’ll quickly learn that they don’t play just for the joy of the game. They expect to be compensated. Here we have something in common. Teachers don’t teach just to make the world a better place, and while we don’t sign multimillion-dollar contracts before our first game, we think it would be reasonable to expect financial security after ten years of proven performance.

• Many teachers don’t find performance pay unthinkable, but they do expect “value added” to include some measure of how they and their receivers (students) perform on the actual field of play. And it makes them anxious when people who don’t understand the game want to make compensation decisions based entirely on the final score.

Gladwell points out that even Shonka, with all his savvy and experience, has difficulty predicting success because the context and the specifics of quarterbacking are different in college and the pros. It’s just very, very hard to determine in advance who will have all it takes to do the job well.

In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards (for teaching). We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. 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.

By this logic, should we not give every college quarterback a chance at the NFL? You know, suit them up, send them out on Sunday afternoon, give them the ball, and see how they play. Of course this won’t happen in the NFL because the risk is too high--they might lose the game! Notice--- that’s GAME. Isn’t the welfare and education of our children a higher stakes situation? Shouldn’t we attempt to do everything we can to lower the potential for failure by setting the best standards we can on the front end?

To be fair, it seems that Galdwell’s real point is that we still haven’t defined what makes successful teachers. He recalls the research of Jacob Kounin who attempted to define teaching “withitness” as “a teacher’s communicating to the children by her actual behavior.” Quick research reveals this as a technical research term combining “eyes in the back of the head” and “the look.” Is it instinctive, sort of like knowing how to throw a ball? Maybe. Does this mean that teacher preparation, like football coaching, is superfluous fluff? Very likely not.

Gladwell also points to research at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education that is attempting to quantify the skills of highly effective teachers. “Regard for student perspective” and “feedback” are among the dispositions of successful teachers that are captured and recorded from tapes of how teachers adapt content and pedagogy as they interact with students. This is not rookie good luck. What the researchers are capturing is expertise built on knowledge and experience refined through practice and reflection.

Actually, I think Gladwell gets it. Effective teaching is not easily quantifiable. Context and human interaction matter. So how come when he says teaching is a mystery, the pundits say “Ahh!” But when teachers say their work is complex, and we argue that our effectiveness should be validated through submission of a portfolio assessment based on actual practice, the pundits say “Nahhh!” How come we laugh about armchair quarterbacking but take armchair educating seriously?

The realities of supply and demand dictate that we will never invest the same effort or interest in choosing teachers for someone else’s children as we do in selecting quarterbacks for our own football teams. But for the record, I’d like to point out that our schools are filled with pros. They demonstrate the same qualities that we recognize in great athletes. They are tough education warriors who go out there and play school every day.

They play school regardless of the “field” condition. They play school with old and broken equipment. They play school when management ignores their input and belittles their abilities. They play school when the fickle fan of public opinion boos from the stands. They play when the money’s not so great. When the chips are down and the pressure is on, they dig a little deeper, grit their teeth, and play on because they are professionals and they are passionate about the serious game of school.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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