Hiring the Right Staff…Or Not

Photo Credits: Me

With NECC coming up sooner than it seems, and Malcolm Gladwell being the keynote speaker, I decided I had to make a move to learn a little more about this guy. 

I finally had some time to read through Malcom Gladwell‘s article in the New Yorker titled “Most Likely to Succeed.” I was excited about the possibilities after reading the tag line “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?” My hope that I would finally learn the secrets to hiring the right staff was short lived as I read through the article, though.

Once you get through the overly done metaphor of scouting a quarterback being compared to finding the right teacher, you find that Gladwell builds on a number of misguided beliefs bantered around already far too much in political circles as foundations of good education.

First of all, Gladwell jumps right into the fire by saying that “one of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is ‘value added’ analysis.” As he says, it uses standardized tests to determine the connection between a student’s test scores and a classroom teacher’s performance. More specifically, he uses a class average as the comparison between two third grade teachers. Not only does he not take into consideration the different make-up of student needs, he goes so far as to name the kids “Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts.” That extends his description of the students as average with the use of average names.  When was the last time any teacher walked into a classroom full of kids with names like that?

I give Gladwell credit for the admission, “It’s only a crude measurement. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test.” Yet, he jumps right back into the poor side of the argument using the term “nonetheless.” Why nonetheless? Why not, “Standardized tests just don’t cut it.” Nope. He decides that it is just okay to base teacher performance on student tests. We will find out whether a teacher is “good or poor” based on one test on one day.

He then extends that argument even more giving it credence by sharing input given by an economist who talks about ranking our kids against other countries. That again? When other countries test their kids, ALL of their kids, like we do (or vice versa) then we can have this discussion. Until then, it is an apples and oranges comparison and not worthy of more print. I prefer to not create a nation of standardized test takers anyway.

As an added bonus, the economist shares that we can increase test scores by replacing the bottom six to ten percent of our teachers with teachers of “average quality.” Would this argument not continue through infinity? It’s like saying we need to bring up those below average. Won’t half the population always be below average?

After some more drivel about scouting, he gets back to some real research about what makes a good teacher. “Withitness.” Now, as stupid as that sounds, it is pretty accurate. It might be the teacher who allows the little kids at reading time to get excited about the book and lean in toward the book even though it might be against normal class procedure. She is identifying a level of engagement and running with it. It might also be the teacher who stops one of the kids as he/she heads out the door to make sure everything is okay after noticing odd behavior in the classroom. Or it might be the teacher who mentions student names and specific honors seen over the weekend at the academic event or ball field.  Or it might be all of the above and then some, which is far more likely, but that is withitness. 

I had the opportunity to testify before an Interim Select Committee on Accountability in Austin, Texas, last spring. Near the end of my testimony, the chairman of the committee asked me a simple question: “What makes a teacher a good teacher?” My answer was just as simple, but not really: “I know it when I see it.” While it may seem an odd answer, those of us in education realize that it is VERY difficult to vocalize what a good teacher is doing that makes a good teacher. Sure, we can do checklists all day long. What is missing is what that truly looks like in a good teacher. A poor teacher can get through a checklist. It takes experience to know the difference.

This is where Gladwell allows some good ideas to come through even if he did not extend them to logical possibilities. He is absolutely correct that our government is too busy trying to certify every Tom, Dick, and Mary that wants to be called a teacher. Then they complain that teacher quality is low. Gladwell brings in an example of financial advisers and training and yada, yada, yada. Basically, the financial companies spend about $150,000 over three or four years to train up each finalist for financial adviser positions with mentors working with them, yet they still have a lower than expected success rate. He even admits that it is a tough sell for schools to pull that off. I have several issues with this model.

For one thing, the poor kids in those classrooms will suffer. Consider that the “teacher” just cannot cut it. He/she has ruined three or four years worth of kids in that subject. Obviously, not all of the kids would suffer, but for the sake of argument, we can all agree they got cheated in some form or fashion. And, on top of that, schools do not have that type of money to waste on a bet like that.

So why would I hammer Gladwell over trying to get schools to do an internship/apprenticeship like this? Well, it seems as though he suggests that we do this AFTER college. I don’t get that. Why would we not “cull the herd,” if you will, BEFORE they get to the classroom?

I happened to go through a program just like that, and cull they did. In a program at the University of Texas at Tyler that limited entry to thirty students, our graduating class only had eleven left. The program had us in classrooms in Title 1 campuses from the second semester on. Internships and apprenticeships are a part of that program. Well, were a part of that program. It was expensive to do. UTT did it for as long as they could before they did away with it and settled for a hybrid version for the entire education program. While that brought up the quality of the larger program, it dropped the quality compared to that which most of us experienced prior to the change. It was hard. It had rigor. It had high expectations. Most of all, it got respect. A graduate of that program, aptly called Professional Development School, from an experience standpoint was not considered a first year teacher once entering his or her own classroom. Mentors from both the university and the schools in which we worked during our program spent countless hours helping develop professionals and counseling those who had no business in the classroom.

That is the model we should be using. I am all for internships and apprenticeships in pre-service programs. I think it would be the best investment most universities could make in improving the quality of their programs and graduates, ultimately improving the quality of teachers overall. 

I also find Gladwell’s mention of the financial industries “Million Dollar Round Tables” out of place. The round table award is for successful financial advisors.  I am guessing he thinks there should be something similar in education. Wonderful. I’d love to see it.  If so, how do you determine the recipients? Please don’t tell me standardized test scores. There are too many issues with that thinking. The vast majority of kids in a state take the same test regardless of the fact that they are dyslexic, recent to the country, too low to qualify for special ed, mother died the week before, came to school sick as a dog, etc.  And even the university group that Gladwell discusses clearly shows how abstract good teacher qualities are with the term “withitness.” Standardized test that one for me.

Gladwell does end with a very profound statement before moving back into his football example:

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

So my takeaways from this article are these:

  • We need to improve our higher ed programs in the area of pre-service teacher training. Interneships and apprenticeships are great ways to do just that due to the fact that mentors will get to see candidates in real world situations.
  • Internships and apprenticeships are expensive. The public is not willing to pay for schools to do it, and frankly, my personal opinion is that waiting that long is too late anyway. The state should be paying to develop these programs at the university level.
  • Regardless of the fact that companies make widgets and are profit machines to generate further advances in their field and schools are far different from that, we will continue to see folks making that comparison in order to sell books, generate high paying speaking engagements.
  • Upon reflection, I cannot believe that Gladwell offered this article up as any part of a solution. It was more of a conversation starter.

So, let’s get to the point of that conversation. We are here for student academic achievement. What is the best way to insure that that happens at the highest level? How do we get to that end through hiring staff? I’m not sure I got much out of this article to move us in that direction.

2 thoughts on “Hiring the Right Staff…Or Not

  1. I’ve read most of Outliers and quite enjoy his take on some things. Not sure there is always a direct correlation to education but there is some interesting ideas to explore.

    With regards to pre-service teachers, I went through a similar experience. I was in a class of 30 chosen from over 200 applicants. We were chosen largely on the basis of an interview rather than our test scores. That’s a lot more expensive and time consuming than taking the top scores.

    As someone who teaches pre-service teachers, I can usually tell within a few weeks who is going to be a great teacher. Not that the others will not, but it’s just not as evident. So yes, I can tell when I see it.

    The issue you address about recognizing the flaws of standardized testing or testing of almost any nature is that while most see the flaws, the attitude of “nonetheless” is usually the default response.

    Because good assessment is expensive, we rely on poor data or at least limited data to base many decisions upon. I recently sat in on meeting with our Ministry (the equivalent of your state officials) where we looked at our district goals and outcomes. I asked the question, “how do we tell our story of learning using qualitative data that addresses more than test scores?” While they agreed that might be useful, they weren’t sure how we do that. As usual, that kind of data doesn’t fit nicely into a cell on a spreadsheet.

  2. Dean,

    That is the main reason we are moving to electronic portfolios in our district. We want our students AND teachers to be able to share who they really are and what they really know outside of a test score.

    As for a legitimate alternative to a standardized test, Texas tried one out and it worked very well. They called it Performance Standards Project. You can find more about it here: http://www.texaspsp.org/

    The funny thing about the Texas PSP was that it was meant for gifted students only, with the underlying belief these kids are wasting their time on multiple choice tests, which most of them are. All students, especially the lower students, would have benefited from this type of assessment. Basically, it was PBL where the student generated a project for final assessment by a panel locally and then another at the state level. Genuine learning and assessment. But, as you pointed out, it is expensive. It did not last past the pilot term. The site is still active so schools can utilize it, but I believe it has been a few years since it has been updated.

    That type of assessment is what pre-service teachers need to be seeing during internships and apprenticeships. It is real-life PBL, and the mentor gets to see firsthand how the student handles it. But I’m sure that is a dream world since money gets in the way.

    I appreciate your perspective.

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