Why Teachers Aren’t Like Quarterbacks

I wrote this short piece on teacher development for Teach First in response to a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell in which he  likens new teachers in the classroom to College quarterbacks starting in the NFL. He’s guilty of a typical error of behavioural economists – assuming human behaviour is a constant. As Bernard Stiegler writes: “the spread of traceability seems to be used primarily to increase the heteronomy of individuals through behaviour-profiling rather than their autonomy.”


In his essay Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job? Malcolm Gladwell (2008) explores the problem of ineffective classroom practice, likening teachers to quarterbacks. His analogy is based on two main premises: first, that you don’t know how good a teacher will be until you place them in a ‘game’ environment (the classroom, in front of students) and second, that how good a teacher is in that first ‘game’ will go a long way to explaining how good they’ll be for the rest of their career. Gladwell uses this evidence to conclude that there must be an X-factor to teaching, some kind of innate, un-coachable aptitude (as is shown to be the case with college quarterbacks making the step up to the NFL) and that as a result, education systems should reform their teacher recruitment processes.

He is right to say that teacher ineffectiveness is a massive problem. A Tennessee Department for Education (2007) study showed that teachers show close to zero improvement in effectiveness from after 3 years in service until the end of their careers, with Wiliam (2010) confirming that “the average improvement in student value-added by a teacher over 20 years is one-tenth of the difference between a good teacher and a weak teacher on the first day of their teaching career.” Meanwhile an Australian study (Fig. 1) carried out by Leigh (2007) measuring “teacher productivity” through looking  at the improvement in “the average test scores of the children in that teacher’s class” over a two year period, found that 25 years of teaching experience increased a teacher’s productivity by around 0.5 months of learning in a year. In other words across a whole year students would learn two weeks more knowledge in the class of a 25 year teaching veteran than they would in the classroom of an NQT.

Leigh, A. (2007), Estimating teacher effectiveness from two-year changes in student test scores

Leigh, A. (2007), Estimating teacher effectiveness from two-year changes in student test scores

Despite this, I would argue that Gladwell’s assertion falls down on two key points, both of which serve to highlight the problem with the way that we currently think about teachers and teacher effectiveness. Firstly, college quarterbacks arrive in the NFL having received at minimum a decade of intensive training and hundreds of hours of in-game experience: if they can’t make it after all that training, psychometric testing and intense competition for places, chances are they’re not suddenly going to step up. Secondly, quarterbacks in the NFL have on average a 3 year career, meaning that they need to show that they can be successful right from day one: teams can’t afford to wait around for a multi-million dollar investment to pay-off.

On the first point, teachers in classrooms in the UK have usually had just one year of ITT, with a small amount of ‘in-game’ experience practicing in the classroom, followed by a few days a year of decontextualised CPD, yet are berated for failing to be good or outstanding. Politicians, the media, even fellow professionals queue up to suggest that the problem is restriction on redundancy and recruitment, without asking why teachers aren’t improving. On the second point, teachers’ careers last a lot longer than those of quarterbacks, and their role-objectives are not driven by short-term, competition-led returns on an investment, but rather continual successes at a holistic system level over a long period of time. The problem isn’t that they aren’t good enough on their first day, but that they aren’t good enough after their fifth, tenth or twentieth year. Unlike with NFL quarterbacks, it is worth investing in their long-term training and development.

Barber & Mourshed (2007), The Effect of Teacher Quality

Barber & Mourshed (2007), The Effect of Teacher Quality

The problem is even more pressing in the context of ending educational disadvantage. In 2010 Ofsted found that “a strong relationship remains between deprivation and poorer provision: 71% of schools serving the least deprived pupils were good or outstanding compared with 46% serving the most deprived,” meaning that there are far fewer outstanding teachers in high deprivation communities. Given that Hamre & Pianta (2005) show that in the classrooms of the most effective teachers, students from disadvantaged backgrounds learn at the same rate as those from advantaged backgrounds, this must be seen as a crisis of deficit in teacher effectiveness in high deprivation communities. Similarly the numbers of inadequate and satisfactory teachers have risen in the past year, with Ofsted (2011) reporting a rise from 8,800 to 17,600 of inadequate teachers since 2009/10 and a rise of 123,200 to 162,800 satisfactory teachers in the same period from a stable overall cohort of 440,000 teachers. Inadequate and satisfactory teachers will not change the life trajectories of disadvantaged students.

Gladwell rightly identifies the problem that teacher effectiveness hardly improves throughout a teacher’s career, but he misses a large part of the underlying cause in suggesting that the main issue is in selecting the wrong people to be teachers (current trends suggest that just 10% of NQTs are willing to teach in a high deprivation schools in any case). Instead, the problem would be better understood as one of a failure of the education system to provide teachers with sufficient training of sufficient quality to ensure that all teachers become good or outstanding. If 96% of children are cognitively able to achieve at least a C grade in Maths and English at GCSE, then why shouldn’t 96% of teachers be good or outstanding practitioners? It is a problem that they are not, and it is a problem that is exacerbated because we don’t believe that they can be, and are not willing to invest in their being so.

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