The Howler On Gladwell

The Howler is concerned that Education Journalism is populated by people who have never been in a classroom. Funny, seems just about nobody who enjoys the "reformer" label has taught in public school.
Special report: Schools daze!

Part 1—Gladwell, unblinking: Who will Obama pick to be Secretary of Education? Some slightly-odd writing has surfaced of late as big mainstream news orgs ponder this question. The writers often have little background in education issues—and their lack of experience often shows. One other attribute tends to show up: The way these mainstream scribes sometimes seem to be in thrall to “conservative” educational notions.

There’s nothing automatically “wrong” with conservative educational ideas, of course. But something is a little bit wrong with uninformed public ed writing.

For starters, consider this piece by Malcolm Gladwell in last week’s New Yorker. Gladwell ponders a worthwhile question: How could school districts improve their performance in deciding which new teachers to hire? According to Gladwell, it’s hard to review a college graduate’s resume and determine if he or she will become a good teacher. How might school districts do a better job picking applicants who turn out to be top-notch teachers?

As he starts, Gladwell compares this to a problem from the world ofsports: Football scouts have a hard time knowing which collegequarterbacks will succeed at the NFL level. How might school districtsaddress their version of this problem? This is the perfectly sensiblequestion Gladwell attempts to address.

Gladwell discusses a serious issue—but does he have the chops to do so? He starts with ruminations about quarterbacks—but what follows is his very first paragraph about public education. And his reasoning here strikes us as odd. Frankly, it makes us wonder if he might be somewhat over his head discussing public school issues:

GLADWELL (12/15/08): One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is “value added” analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academicperformance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changesbetween the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs.Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs.Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students’ rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.

Let’s see if we have fully grasped the reasoning found in that passage:

According to Gladwell, two classes were even at the start of the year—but by the end of the school year, one of the classes was doing much better. Our question: Why would it take “one of the most important tools in contemporary educational research” to deduce that this group’s teacher had been “more effective as a teacher?” Why would we need an “important tool in educational research”—a “theory,” no less—to draw such an obvious conclusion? Has any principal ever lived who wouldn't have reached this obvious judgment? The conclusion here is comically obvious. But it’s buried beneathsome ponderous talk about “contemporary research” and“important research tools.”

But then, we’re often struck by writing like that when mainstream journalists proclaim about public schools. In fairness, we might say that Gladwell has merely constructed an exceptionally simple example to illustrate some larger point—though we’re not sure what that point might be. Who wouldn’t “use standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year?” We started teaching fifth grade in Baltimore in 1969. And sure enough! Not being the dumbest humans on earth, everyone in our low-income school was doing this, even back then.

So that opening paragraph made us wonder a bit about Gladwell’s competence in this area. But we were also struck by his third paragraph about the schools. Our view? In this passage, the gentleman’s lack of background really does seem to show through:

GLADWELL: Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

In that passage, Gladwell starts considering a serious policy question: Should money be used to reduce class size? Or would such money be better spent attracting more capable teachers? On that question, we have no view. But we’re not real sure that Gladwell’s the man to help us sort it out.

In the sentences we have highlighted, Gladwell claims to be paraphrasing Hanushek, who is actually a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, not a lowly faculty member at miserable Stanford itself. There’s nothing “wrong” with working at Hoover, of course, and Hanushek’s research and views are surely well worth considering. (In recent weeks, he’s certainly had a lot of success getting mainstream scribes to recite them!) But does that slightly puzzling, highlighted passage really reflect something Hanushek said? “The students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year?” And: “The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material?” We’ll take a guess: That might mean that an average student (a kid near the fiftieth percentile in reading or math) will typically learn that much in those situations—although the statement means almost nothing until we’re told how many teachers qualify as “very good” and “very bad.” Did Hanushek really say something like this: On average, students will learn three times as much from a very good teacher? We have no clue, but Gladwell’s presentation is mired in the murk and the gloam.

In short, that presentation—by Gladwell, not Hanushek—is thoroughly lacking in clarity. Does this reflect a lack of chops on Gladwell’s part when it comes to educational issues? We have no

way of judging that just from this piece. But in the mainstream upper-end press corps, journalists often orate at length about public schools—even though they seem to have no background in the area at all. And uh-oh! Such people may be inclined to believe whatever dang-fool thing they get told.

As we’ve said, Gladwell ponders a worthwhile question—and that may be the problem. He ends up making a somewhat eccentric suggestion about teacher recruitment—a suggestion he seems to source to no one but himself. And the validity of his suggestion turns, almost completely, on his unblinking acceptance of (paraphrased) claims about the fruits of Hanushek’s research. This is the passage where Gladwell’s rubber really starts hitting the road:

GLADWELL: Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.

Could the U.S. really produce some sort of major change “simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality?” We don’t havethe slightest idea, although we’re hugely dubious. But we note that Gladwell’s claim is based on a paraphrased account of something Hanushek supposedly said—a claim Hanushek supposedly based on “a back-of-the-envelope calculation.” Once again, we’re forced to rely on Gladwell’s basic chops in such matters.

Does Gladwell know what he’s talking about? Does he have a suitable background for such ruminations? We’re not sure—but in the world of mainstream journalism, reporters and editorialists often expound on educational matters, often without showing the slightest sign of anything like expertise. And oh yes: In the current climate surrounding the schools, they will often be found recommending “conservative” views—and showing that the word “reform” now extends to conservatives only.

When it comes to public education, there’s absolutely nothing “wrong” with “conservative” ideas and perspectives. But in the world of the mainstream press, many things are often wrong with the way these ideas get reviewed. In recent weeks, a bit of a tipping point has been reached in the way this familiar old game is played. Did Gladwell know whereof he spoke? We’re not sure—but then again, how about Time’s Amanda Ripley?

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