The Teacher Problem

A recent article in the New Yorker (Most Likely to Succeed, 12/15) discusses the many jobs that have no way of predicting performance of potential candidates.

An example is a professional quarterback.  Many of the outstanding college quarterbacks never make it in the pros, yet some mediocre ones do.  The problem is the different type of offence.  College football uses the “spread” where the linemen and receivers are widely spaced and the quarterback can stand back, see the opposing defense, and plan where to throw the ball before it is snapped.  In the pros, however, the defense is too quick and would flatten the quarterback every time.  The offence has to be bunched together. The quarterback has to take the ball directly from the center, run back and throw with linemen in his face the whole time.  Even his eyes can tip off the defense to an interception.  Bottom line is that different skills are needed in the pros, and there is no way to predict who has them and who doesn’t.

The same is true of teachers, at least in the elementary grades where the studies were done.  Performance tests on the students at the beginning of the year and again at the end show those with poorer teachers learn only half a year’s material, while those with good teachers average a year and a half, a tremendous difference. 

Yet there is no way to predict which teachers will be good and which will not.  Performance seems to be tied to the teacher’s ability to engage the students while still maintaining order, but this is a God-given talent.  There is no correlation with pay, years of service, college rank, or advanced degrees. 

A similar problem is in the field of financial advisors where performance is the ability to attract clients. (Giving good advice is only important when it adds to the client base.)  With no way to predict this complex ability, one firm interviews a thousand applicants each year, selects about fifty for a four-month training period, and keeps only about twenty.  Even then, it takes three or four years to see who will really succeed. 

The implications for teachers is profound.  Rather than raising teacher’s standards, we should be lowering them, since the standards are meaningless.  Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree and performance judged during a probationary period.  Perhaps four out of five should be let go, while those remaining should be amply rewarded.

But this is not how our system works.  Teachers pay union dues and vote.  Children don’t.
Photos at

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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