Malcolm Gladwell revisits the mismatch problem in the New Yorker. (Only now he calls it “The Quarterback Problem”). Whatever. The main thing you need to know is that for many professions, there are gates and gatekeepers. The gatekeepers use the gates–in the form of tests, degrees, or diplomas–to help them weed out the worthless and forecast who will make a great fill-in-the-blank (take your pick: lawyer, NFL quarterback, teacher, financial advisor). The problem is that the gatekeepers have no idea what they’re doing. Their gates are useless filters. In some cases, they achieve the exact opposite of their purport. Instead of helping gatekeepers discover the productive and worthy, these gates turn them away. Worse, the gates entrench the power of the mediocre and raise the cost for those who need their products. Gobbits worth pondering:
A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have 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.
The NEA won’t tell you that, though. Neither will the No Incompetent Teacher Left Unhired law either. Anyway, Gladwell offers some policy prescriptions:
[Teaching] needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now…
An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot—both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.
I wish we lived in a world where this kind of experimentation could get its chance. Imagine towns full of dispersed venture capital–in the form of vouchers for each child–and then imagine the educational entrepreneurs devising ways of staffing classrooms with eighty-fifth percentile teachers. Nice fantasy, huh?