Malcolm Gladwell on how to spot potential star teachers

Malcolm Gladwell has a good piece in the current New Yorker about how hard it is to figure out what makes great teachers great.
200812081119 (illo by Joost Swarte) 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.

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. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.

Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?


  1. Well then if we can’t figure it out, halve those class sizes, double those salaries, and build twice as many classrooms so when we do figure out, after a few years on the job, who should be working we can provide students the most important improvement of all:

    good teacher retention.

  2. Related: how do we fire teachers who suck at the job?

    I know I’m not the only one who suffered through classes that were “taught” by tenured teachers who didn’t give a shit about their jobs or their students.

    1. how do we fire teachers who suck at the job?

      I got my 7th grade math teacher fired. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Mrs. Noyes. She hated her job, she hated children and she hated math. I went to the principal and complained bitterly that we were missing a whole year of math because she couldn’t teach. I got the other students to sign a petition. She wasn’t tenured yet and they dumped her at the end of the year.

  3. This sounds suspiciously like it’s leading into the old “Never mind the lack of funding, it’s those incompetent teachers and their unions that are ruining education” canard.

    Which tends to survive not through any evidence at all, but through a lack of responsibility on behalf of the parents (“oh no, it can’t be because of us that our child is not doing well. Quick- blame someone else. How about Canada?”) and a political will to blame public servants as an easy substitute for having an adult discussion about funding and taxation.

  4. There was some recent research done with Maori students in which they found that students conflated a good teacher with a good subject. They’d say “I love math” or “I hate English” and later the researchers realized their love of the subject hinged on their relationship to the teacher. The researchers also found that teachers trained in dealing with the issues faced by Maori students were also liked more by students of other ethnicities/cultures.

    I think a lot hinges on good teachers.

  5. Screw the teachers: they’re jaded adults with no sense of wonder left. Instead, pay children to go to school. The longer they stay in school, and the higher grades they get, the more money they make until they’re earning as much if not more than their teachers. That way, rich pupils won’t suffer any idiots teaching them, nor will they let fellow pupils disrupt class.

    Mind you, an extremely highly-educated, highly-motivated young adult population might totally disrupt the social order. So perhaps its a bad idea. Keep the kids watching TV…

  6. I once had a math teacher tell me I’d never get it. Thing is, she did this with no prompting as I was coming into the class. I’d consider her a bad teacher, yes?

    You know what? I stopped paying attention to her class and ended up doing horribly in maths for a few years after that. Only after I took independent courses did I actually regain an interest in maths. Shows you just what a horrible thing to a child a bad teacher can do.

  7. troll: “How dare you say that some of our glorious teachers aren’t as good as they can be.”

    I have been taught by good and bad teachers and there are obvious results. But how hard is to fire an under-performing employee when the teachers are in a union?

  8. Yet the biggest predictor of a student’s success in school is the family’s attitudes to school/learning/knowledge… but hey, it’s always easier to blame the teacher…

  9. Paying students to learn overlooks the fact that kids naturally like to learn, and generally pursue it autonomously if they’re allowed to. Move beyond the 19th century model of schooling as authoritarian discipline and embrace the most powerful resource available in the classroom: the students’ own desire to learn about things.

    Behavior studies have shown that by paying someone to do something, you devalue that activity in their mind: you transform it into something which is burdensome and unworthy of being done for free. This is already true of grades, and would be even more so for money.

    Mind you, they’re not necessarily interested in learning exactly what a teacher has put in his/her lesson plan. This makes teaching require much more flexibility and humility than before, because the teacher is often learning the subject matter along with his/her students.

  10. As an 11-year veteran of teaching teenagers (for pay) and adults (for love), I can empathize with all of the comments here. I had bad teachers, too, and, as a lifelong learner, I have even less patience for bad teachers now!

    Some thoughts (I’m doing this anonymously, and you’ll see why in a minute):

    #1- Yes, retention is important. I’m actually leaving teaching next year. Time for a break. I hope I can make my way back; I love it and I’m super good at it.

    #2- An excellent question, as one who has worked with some real duds. The answer: you have to have an administration that gives a shit. Bad teachers CAN be fired, but it takes a lot of paperwork and time. And, in fairness, we should give ample warning to bad teachers so that they can work on reforming themselves. Most won’t, but it CAN be done.

    #3- I couldn’t agree more. I loved the subjects that were taught by excellent teachers, and conflated the two. Still do, as a matter of fact.

    #4- We’re not all jaded. Even excellent teachers are subject to outside forces: the death of a loved one, a marriage gone bad, six terrible managers in 11 years (this one is my own gripe, hah!)…these things will kill your sense of fun and joy for teaching. That’s why I’m taking a break.

    #5- I had a similar experience, only I never recovered. I’s still “bad at math”.

    #6- What’s under-performing? Not achieving good standardized test scores? Not passing a certain percentage of your class each term? Passing too many kids who are not actually performing at grade level? There’s under-performing, the obvious; and under-performing: sitting down for the whole class period; passing back tests and quizzes with grades but no comments to explain how to get the right answer; not connecting to your students because you’re actually tired of teaching and don’t care much beyond the receipt of a paycheck… See what I mean? These things are hard to pin down, but make all the world of difference in the classroom.

    Teaching is easy.

    Teaching well is one of those things that’s much, much harder than it looks.

  11. One of the common traits of a good teacher is that they never really get to leave the job. Lesson plans and meetings with parents/staff/board pretty much eat up their time 7 days a week all year.

    And then they get tired of being paid less than every other white collar profession while being simultaneously maligned for being in a union.

    And quit.

  12. Anyone else immediately drawn to the Fibonacci sequence on the board? Assuming there’s another 1 not shown it has
    (1) 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55!

    Bob Dole

  13. @Antinous

    When I tried that I got threatened by the vice principal with suspension for “insubordination”.

    (Foremost I was somewhat shocked that I, as a student, was even considered a subordinate.)

  14. Paying students to learn, especially in impoverished areas is a brilliant idea. My dh and his three brothers graduated from some of the top colleges in the country, though raised by parents who, “barely graduated high school.” His words. Anyway, he claims it was because his parents gave the kids 50 cents for every A they earned. You have to be pretty poor to derive some motivation from that and they were and it worked.

    In my experience, kids skip school because they don’t have the money for the bus, don’t have money for lunch, don’t have money to wash their clothes. They are told to stay in school, but for many teenagers this will mean NO FOOD, and so they skip school to pick up work (often illegal) to make the money they need to survive. All this talk of raising teacher pay is fine and good except teachers aren’t the only ones doing the work, the kids are doing the work, too, but they aren’t getting paid.

    Classroom management (aka crowd control) is a critical skill all good teachers possess. However, many “bad teachers” might in fact be excellent teachers if their students’ behavior was a little less psycho. You might be surprised by what a teacher could do if not constantly aggravated by out-of-control behavior problems.

    Zizak, you make an excellent point about the intrinsic motivation of learning, but past age 12, I see no problem with merit pay for KIDS. (Becasue they’re really only motivated by sex at that point anyway. hahaha)

  15. Clayton Christensen, author of the excellent Innovator’s Dilemma series of books, has a new book out Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. I’m looking forward to enjoying it in the new year.

    There may also be some useful insights in Atul Gawande’s Better which is mostly about improving medical performance, but similar principles should apply to education if somehow the resistance to change could be overcome.

  16. Open the doors. Set up shop. If they come, teach. If they don’t, go home. Work with whoever shows up. No coercion, no excuses. Let their parents and probation officers worry about their attendance. Don’t grade them, teach them. You are not a cop.

    As far as school administrators, school boards and parents go, use Solzhenitsyn’s 3Ds: Don’t believe them, Don’t fear them, and Don’t ask them for anything.

    There are worse things than being fired from teaching. Eating shit is one of them.

  17. Teachers are asked to be cops, every day. The most effective teachers who seem to last on the job do run their classrooms with just a touch of militancy. I could never do that. Inevitably, my classrooms became unruly mobs of hormonally charged, prefrontal cortex-blunted balls of drama. Or maybe that’s just what I brought out in them.

    (yes, I will be writing my autobiography. and then they may learn.)

  18. ditto the 3D, Buddy. Terrible fact is I have met excellent teachers and never anything better than an average administrator.

  19. The worst teachers I had taught the useless subjects. I had a home economics teacher who told my parents that she had seen me laughing at a mentally challenged girl in my class at parent-teacher conferences. Not only did this never happen but she had never called me on it, so I couldn’t even refute the accusation with what really happened. I can only assume she was attempting to get me in trouble at home. Either that or she thought she saw me ‘Laughing at the retard,’ as it were, and did nothing about it. Not sure which is worse.

    I also had a gym teacher who would ride out to the football field in a golf cart while we ran (at his behest), and sit in it eating McDonalds for the rest of the period after dividing up teams. I had never before been so motivated to completely half ass something.

  20. Consider:

    1. An elementary principal is selected for excellence in child psychology, then placed in charge of 50 professional adults. It is physically impossible for the principal to “oversee” the performance of every teacher (a.k.a. span of control).

    2. The most likely feedback to the teacher is negative and undiplomatic (e.g., irritated parent). The principal chooses between parent’s word or teacher’s word, and is politically biased in favor of the parent.

    3. Teachers teach, create a test, administer that test, report the results and are themselves graded on that report. If results are at all favorable, there is no incentive to make self-assessed improvement. (There is no reason to be honest either, but that’s a different problem.)

    4. Old teachers do not teach young teachers: old teachers are assigned the most difficult students for their last years. All new teachers are lonely beginners.


    1. Hire Associate-degree grads (AA’s are currently poo-pooed in the school culture), and establish an independent group to perform testing, like QA departments in modern factories. Benefits:
    a. provide polite feedback to teacher (after teacher first learns to not be defensive)
    b. provide 2nd opinion on “little johnny”, supporting teacher’s assessment of bad behavior (now the principal has an unbiased witness)
    c. get 2nd set of eyes to ID childhood problems, like eyesight, dyslexia, abusive parents, etc.
    d. tabulate teacher performance, so principal’s opinion will not be so subjective

    2. Leaders of these QA groups should be 1st/2nd-year teachers (MA college grads), who will get to witness and evaluate many different teachers & styles, and only then move up to teaching classes on their own. Experience will be passed on.

  21. I encouraged one of my children, deciding which GCSEs to study for, to choose one particular subject because of the teacher who would teach it.
    Quite apart from the subject-knowledge she imparted, she also nurtured his critical-thinking skills, and provided lots of very valuable feedback on his essay writing.
    From her he gained far, far more than a paper qualification.

  22. The amount of work and pressure put on teachers vs. the pay offered as compensation in the US has successfully assured that among the pool of “great teachers,” only the saints will stay. The rest quickly figure out they can make a lot more money with a lot less people threatening to pay them according to uncontrollable variables and get the hell out.

    There is not a surplus of saints in the United States, and those we have we must share with social services, police forces, and the churches. No, money won’t solve everything. But if I were paid as well as my pharmacist husband for working longer hours and bringing home 150+ papers to grade and being sneered at in the evening news, I might still be teaching. Maybe.

  23. My own experience, and that of my sister, was, in retrospect, charmed. We went to a single-sex grammar school (ie selective), where good behaviour was reinforced by peer pressure, and the teachers were allowed to bloom. Almost all of our teachers were good teachers, and many were truly great.
    My brother, on the other hand, although equally intelligent, was a late bloomer, failed the 11 and 12 plus, and was despatched to the local ‘secondary modern’. His experience was pretty dismal.

  24. I am a product of the public school system. I’ve taught in the public school system and I am now in my sixth year as a private school educator.
    Teachers are good on their own. It doesn’t matter what school they’re in, if a teacher is good, they’ll be good no matter where they are. That being said, good teachers won’t stick around shit holes for long. So when the state or the school starts thinking that they’re onto what makes mediocre teachers into great ones, they’ll swiftly add yet another hoop for that educator to jump through.
    If you’re a crap educator, you’ll just worry about jumping and hop to it. If you care about what you do and the option to leave/transfer/move-up presents itself, you’ll take it.
    Finally, the biggest difference in public to private isn’t the teachers, it’s the families and the administration. Families in a private school (for the most part) will support their children being pushed. The administration in a private school is much more political than in public (at least in my experience), and will often say what folks want to hear, regardless of whether it’s true.

  25. This is one of the better articles I have read on the subject of rating teacher performance. However, it leaves a whole lot of data out of the mix.

    There are different types of intelligence, we all know that. Standardized testing really does little else than help schools identify what they already know, and that is the socioeconomic status of the children that attend that school.

    Overall, I believe our public school system is very good. As a matter of fact, when you account for socioeconomic status, public schools actually are on par and even a little ahead of private and parochial schools on ACT and SAT scores. That is according to a University of Chicago – Champagne study on the subject.

    The biggest problem, like for the school district that I serve on the board for in Missouri, is that the cost of running an educational institution has doubled since 1991, yet our funding from the state has remained flat.

    The second biggest problem is that schools as a whole, and this is a glaring problem with standardized testing, are still teaching to 1950s standards…or industrial/factory standards.

    Subject specific critical thinking should be the overriding educational goal for children in the 21st century, because with the amount of data in this world doubling every nine months, memorizing the periodic table is not going to do them much good in this global economy. It is impossible to know everything, and for a teacher, it is impossible to teach everything.

    In the meantime, we can continue to bicker over what makes a good teacher and how we get rid of them when they are already in short supply.

    Until we start paying teachers what they are worth, the percentage of bad or ineffective teachers will always be high. Unlike 50 years ago when nursing was just about the only other option for a woman, talented women in the workforce go where the money is, just like their male counterparts.

  26. good teachers are those that love learning. They are also highly organized, effective communicators, strong leaders, and highly creative.

    the good teachers also love the oddballs – anyone who challenges their own assumptions – and causes them to question their own beliefs.

    Bad teachers want to create clones of themselves.

  27. It took me a long time to figure out that instead of trying to learn something from the bad-okay teachers it was much more effective to skip half their class’s and simply study on my own in that time , I learn a lot more then I would being stuck in a room with a teacher who
    A) Slows down learning for most of the class who are idiots
    B) Can’t control the class of said idiots half the time.
    C) I probably know the subject better then she does

    On the other hand with the teacher I have for another lesson (English) I attend every time, I love the lessons and find them engaging and most of all I learn a lot why becuase he’s a good teacher

  28. Actually I think that the assess–> tenure or exit approach would be beneficial for many other professions.

    In the UK, we don’t even apply this to university academics. On which subject, a Cambridge professor once ranted that the scientific background of his incoming undergraduates was increasingly lamentable. When asked how many of his lab’s PhDs he directed into the teaching profession he dismissed the idea as beneath his proteges. To get the best potential teachers to undergo assessment, we need to pay them high salaries. See also

  29. It sounds like a nice handy way of distracting people from the class sizes debate. “Class size doesn’t affect education as much as how good the teacher is” *might* be directly true, but class size does have a massive impact on teacher workload, especially as you move up the system.

    Not every teacher is a great teacher. Some of them don’t have the experience yet, some might never achieve greatness. Just like every other field, not everybody can be the best.

    So I still feel that reducing class sizes – which might be physically possible – is a better place to focus funding than trying to magically make every teacher “great”. Smaller classes means less stress which means the teachers who are great or have the potential to become great are more likely to stick with it.

  30. I taught Algebra for 3 years in Los Angeles in South Gate. It was the hardest and most stressful job I’ve ever had. Everyday you knew something would go wrong but it was impossible to predict what it would be.

    For example, no assigned classroom? Teach in the lunch area, outside, or anywhere you can.

    Not enough substitute teachers today? No break for you.

    Someone pooped outside the classroom?
    Cover it with cardboard and feel sorry for the janitor and loathe the human race.

    Tripping from one crisis after another was the norm and it eventually wears you down.

    More adults need to be on middle and high school campuses. They don’t have to be teachers. Their presence would help keep the peace and they could give students extra help and attention students need and the teacher could focus on teaching.

  31. Screw the teachers: they’re jaded adults with no sense of wonder left. Instead, pay children to go to school.

    Speaking as both a teacher and a teacher’s spouse, I say go screw yourself. As in any profession there are good and bad teachers, but watch those generalities.

    Who exactly do you think should be paying the students? The parents? The taxpayers who can barely be persuaded to pay ONE meager salary per classroom?

    I also wonder how getting kids to go to school will do any good if there aren’t dedicated teachers waiting to help them learn when they get there. It’s not like a school is a magical location where knowledge is absorbed through osmosis.

  32. “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.”

    Um, there’s 6.2 million teachers in the US. “Replacing” six to ten percent of them means firing 372,000 to 620,000 human beings. And finding 372,000 to 620,000 “teachers of average quality” to replace them with (’cause we all know there’s a few hundred thousand skilled teachers floating around just waiting for a job offer). He might be right – it might be a good idea, but it’s hardly ‘simple’.

  33. As a teacher, I’m pretty good at spotting potential stars too. I am out of the classroom right now, training adults in the corporate environment. I can tell within 5 minutes of starting a class with adults, who had a bad experience in school.

    Now as an outside observer living and working in what has to be one of the best and worst school districts in the US (Oakland), I have seen what works, and what is failing our kids.

    What works: Charter schools, or at least the charter school model. A couple of the local principals have taken the model of the charter school and used it in a plain old neighborhood school, and guess what – it works. We already have smaller class size in elementary schools. Parent and community involvement becomes the principal’s job. Letting teachers teach using the creativity they possess. Discipline is tight and contracts with immediate parent involvement are the rule. High schools are small and the curriculum had a purpose, whether its college prep or aeronautics. Elementary schools are K-8, no more middle schools to become breeding grounds of crime.

    What doesn’t work: Huge high schools with too many administrators. Open up the smaller campuses and make each admin. a principal of a small school. Large impersonal high schools only work for about 30 percent of the kids who go there. So many kids drop out, the numbers the schools give the papers are very inaccurate. Don’t make teachers follow a canned reading and math program. We hate it, the kids hate it and test scores have not improved significantly.

    I was discussing this with people last week – how did our teachers do it? 40-somethings – I dont know about you but I was in the baby-boom where I had at least 30 kids in my first grade class. No one dare spoke out of turn or hit another kid while school was in session. How many remember standing in the corner? Where staying in for recess was torture, and if the teacher called your parents in – you were doomed. Where did adults lose control? Why do we give kids so much say in what they WANT to do.

  34. Replacing poor performing teachers should really mean retraining them or retooling their curriculum.

    We need to stop complaining and start trying to fix our failing schools.

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