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We can’t admit we don’t know if we don’t know we don’t know

By December 18, 2008Uncategorized

We live in an era of awesome measurability.  We can measure almost anything with great precision, so we do. What never occurs to us is whether in some cases there is any correlation to measuring and predicting. 

Top college quarterbacks, more so than most athletes, are scrutinized in the extreme.  And yet it turns out that there is almost no correlation between the supposedly key measurements and later success in the NFL.  Malcom Gladwell calls this insidious disconnect between measurement and prediction 'the quarterback problem.' Apparently, this problem also manifests itself in trying to assess who will be a good teacher.

The sad truth is that we don't really have a good system for predicting teaching ability.  In fact, some of the best teachers seem to defy conventional approaches to teaching.  The key is to engage students and make them interested in the material.  How do you measure that kind of skill before the person goes into the classroom and starts teaching?

Instead of using a 'gatekeeping approach' that attempts to weed out 'less qualified candidates,' we should consider widening the gate, says Gladwell.  "We shouldn't be raising [teaching] standards," he suggests. "We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don't track what we care about.  Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before."

Gladwell's argument is, of course, heresy. The educational system is encrusted with people who only know how to solve problems that are presented in the multiple choice format.  The reason we can't measure teaching skills is that great teachers are creative and creativity is hard to measure.  At least in the form of a standardized test.

But enough of this intellectual grandiosity; let's all get out our Number 2 pencils and carefully fill in the proper circles, shall we?

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  • jimmy says:

    If what he is saying, is that the wrong method for qualifiying teachers is being used, then I agree. They should be judged in a way that determines the 2 that I mentioned. But, his statement that the only qualification is to be breathing, and no testing should be done until after they have already been given the job, I could not disagree more. This, along with the use of unproductive methods of determing their competance, or lack thereof, is a large part of the reason children are receiving sub par education in the government run schools. If we allow the unqalified to “teach” our children, then we should not be surprised that we have high school grads who cannot fill out a job application. Maybe those who have come up with these tests of potential teachers, are gratuates of the same family of teachers, believing that testing is the only way to judge the knowledge of a student, but is somehow unable to do so of teachers, or those wanting for the profession. Creating the highest standards, and the proper means to judge those asking to teach our most presious amoungest us, our children, is one of the most important accomplishments we as a sociaty can make.

  • Jimmy says:

    I must disagree with you position that standards for teachers should be lowered, rather than raised. I have had the opportunity, on numerous occasions, to interface with teachers and professors. Some, were absolutely great, others were, frankly, well I will just say, in the wrong profession. I experienced more of the later than the former, a sad situation indeed. As I see it, there are two (2) basic qualifications for teachers, and these would be evaluated before they begin teaching, not after. Evaluating these standards after they have been teaching, has already caused the damage to the students, some damage of which may never be reversible.

    1) A very good knowledge of the subject/subjects they intend to teach. Without this, and there is an alarming number of “teachers” out there that do not know their subject as well as they should, teaching, or more precisely education, will not occur.

    2) A strong and enduring desire to educate. Teachers who really care about their students, and make teaching their life’s goal, are without question, the best teachers in the profession.

    So, which of these standards would you lower?


  • KenB says:

    Good points, and I agree. What caught my eye though is the title, which is reminiscent of a much-derided remark by Donald Rumsfeld. See, for example this article, reporting on his “Foot-in-Mouth” Award (

    The formulation was good as he used it, and it is good as you use it.

  • Randy says:

    I think he’s saying that the standards for entry into the profession might not even be measuring the things that are important. If we take for a moment that your two criteria for teachers are in fact the important ones, how well are the current requirements measuring those criteria? Why, for instance, would there be a coursework requirement for entry into an alternative certification program? Wouldn’t “very good knowledge of the subject/subjects they intend to teach” be better measured by a subject matter test rather than a coursework requirement? Isn’t it OK if a person with a history degree is also able to pass a U.S. government exam, even though he only knows that stuff through reading and being an active citizen?

    This is just an example of how there may be requirements that make it easier for school administrators to “check a box” and weed out candidates without actually providing a better teacher workforce.


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