Classroom Quarterbacks

Teacher preparation has been a hot topic lately in the education policy world. Much of it stems from a hotly debated and devastating report published a few months ago by the National Council on Teacher Quality. NCTQ’s report revealed that most teacher preparation programs aren’t very selective about the people they admit, and that most aren’t very good at actually giving those prospective teachers the skills they need to do their jobs.

The report has given new weight to an argument that’s been around for a while: The key to giving kids more effective teachers is improving the quality of teacher preparation programs and making them more selective.

This solution makes perfect sense. It’s also wrong—or at least incomplete.

Consider the selectivity issue. It’s true that a lot of education schools will let in almost anyone with a pulse. But many other preparation programs are incredibly selective. Teach for America has built an entire brand around its Ivy League-type admission rate. Selectivity has also been a hallmark of my organization’s Teaching Fellows programs. We spent the better part of a decade trying to find exactly the right combination of academic accomplishments and personality traits that could predict success at the front of a classroom.

Yet studies have shown that very large differences in program selectivity lead to relatively small differences in teacher performance. Extremely selective alternate route programs produce teachers who are about as good as less selective traditional programs—maybe a bit better in some cases, maybe a bit worse in others, but basically about the same. Every year, many teachers who come to the classroom from selective programs turn out to be great teachers, but many others turn out to be middling or ineffective. The same is true about less selective programs.

Moreover, there is little reason to believe that any instances of outperformance among selective programs are due to selectivity. They could be attributable to better pre-service training or better on-the-job coaching models. 

This problem is not unique to education. Malcolm Gladwell went into detail about this back in 2008 when he wrote that teaching suffers from the “quarterback problem”—teaching, like quarterbacking in the NFL, is a profession where you just can’t predict whether people will be good at the job until you actually see them do it. A high school and college All-American can be an NFL flameout. When you’re dealing with the quarterback problem, selectivity is just another word for guessing.

If selectivity by itself isn’t the answer to better teacher preparation, what about improving the actual training? Clearly good training makes it easier for a teacher to be successful, but if it were the determining factor, you’d expect to find clear evidence that graduates from certain preparation programs went on to become effective teachers at much higher-than-average rates.

The evidence here is not very strong. One of the best studies to date that tested this hypothesis found almost no meaningful variation in teacher effectiveness across all the education schools in the entire state of Missouri—a group that represents very different program structures and curriculums. Instead, most of the differences in effectiveness showed up within individual programs. Every program produced some outstanding teachers and some ineffective teachers, just as you see when you group programs by selectivity. Crucially, these researchers also found that similar studies in other states have often overestimated the differences they claimed to find between programs.

What should we make of all this? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should forego selection entirely or write off the importance of teacher preparation. But I think we need to admit that the impact of teacher preparation is tempered by a simple truth: Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and not everyone can do it well. It is not a matter of having a certain set of qualifications or completing basic training. It is more like quarterbacking: a job that presents a dizzying array of challenges in quick succession, which only a subset of skilled practitioners can negotiate successfully. Performance varies widely.

Unfortunately, so many aspects of the teaching profession—everything from meaningless evaluation systems to negligent retention policies—are structured precisely to deny this difficult truth. But if we can clear that mental hurdle, the path to “fixing” teacher preparation becomes pretty clear. It involves not just tweaking admissions requirements or revising curriculums, but rethinking the fundamental approach. Instead of guessing who might be a good teacher and essentially guaranteeing those people teaching positions as long as they endure a prescribed amount of coursework, we should make teacher preparation much more like a training camp you’d find in any professional sports league—a time of intense practice, coaching and assessment.

So, yes, let’s get to work improving teacher preparation—but let’s acknowledge our limitations and keep our eye on the ball. Let’s follow the evidence, which suggests well-meaning guesses and standardized training are not enough. We need to look at actual performance on the field and build the profession around those who can actually quarterback a classroom.

This post is based on a speech at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, and was also published by EdNews Colorado.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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