Fourth and long

Here's a hypothetical that's sure to alarm a San Diego Chargers fan: What if Ryan Leaf had been granted tenure? For those who aren't in the pigskin-know, quarterback Leaf was second pick in the 1998 NFL draft, meaning that he was the crème de la crème of college football players; yet two years later, with a pitiful 15 touchdowns to his name, the Chargers dropped him like a bad habit. The point? It's nigh impossible to tell if a college QB--or, to make Malcolm Gladwell's analogy, a teacher candidate--will make it in the pros. "The school system has a quarterback problem" explains Gladwell, acclaimed New Yorker writer and, most recently, author of Outliers. He's mostly right; we have few tools to tell in advance whether a teacher candidate will prove an effective educator. (Though a brand-new study just added a few tools to our toolbox.) The best teachers, like the best QBs, have a certain je ne sais quoi that can't be measured by paper credentials, examination scores, and past non-teaching achievements. Gladwell's solution is four-fold. First, open the (classroom) door to "anyone with a pulse and a college degree." Then, evaluate teachers only "after they have started their jobs, not before." To attract and keep those that pass muster, up-end the salary structure so that apprentice teachers are paid apprentice salaries and master teachers master salaries. And fourth, dissolve the automatic bestowing of tenure that lets bad apples stay in front of a blackboard. Poor Gladwell; he's about to receive all manner of nasty hate mail. But his ideas--though not new--are mostly right. Now we just need a team willing to give his game plan a try.

"Most Likely to Succeed," by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, December 15, 2008

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