Is Teaching like Quarterbacking? On Malcolm Gladwell’s “Most Likely To Succeed”

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Most Likely To Succeed” is probably a very important essay. He argues that good teachers are like good NFL quarterbacks – it isn’t clear how what is done in college will translate into the classroom or field, and he states rather flatly at one point that “no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.” Yet research has shown there is an enormous difference in learning among students who have good teachers and those who have bad ones. His solution:

…we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with 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….It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance. An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot—both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.

I like Gladwell’s conclusion, but his reasoning leaves much to be desired. A few quick notes:

  • The analogy with quaterbacking fails. There is actually a way, devised by David Lewin of Football Outsiders, of seeing whether a college QB may make it in the NFL: look at his completion percentage and games started. If he has a high completion percentage and has been playing pretty much his whole four/five year career, he stands a reasonable chance of success. The scouting one does – watching film of him, seeing what system he works in, etc. – isn’t irrelevant when these more critical factors are considered.
  • The failure of the analogy with quarterbacking leads to the bigger question of what education is. Is it really as quantifiable as the article says? It seems more like this: we can track, with the “value-added” analysis, to a degree whether a teacher is completely failing at his job. We can’t even do this for certain, because certain student populations will not learn no matter what: it should shock no one that school choice in Milwaukee hasn’t done much. The safe argument is that some aspects of teaching are quantifiable…
  • …but the most crucial ones aren’t. This includes content, which is treated as much the same by any empirical analysis. And content determines teaching styles that may not work with all students. Teaching the Gettysburg Address requires a sense among the students that something awesome is going on: students have to be a bit more attentive, not as bored. Trying to use modern psychology and educational theory to figure out what their instinctive responses are and work from there ignores the issue of their discipline.

That brings us to the final point – what is being missed in all educational debates is just how much education is a matter of value, of how one does things as opposed to that one does things. The object of sports is to win or lose: that analogy cannot hold for an enlightened people. The skills one needs to participate in a democracy, respect his fellow man, and achieve a legacy that he is proud of are had by relating to a teacher on a much deeper level than just seeing him as an entertainer of sorts who keeps your interest so that you learn parallel lines don’t intersect. The reason why an apprenticeship system for teaching will work is that in a free society, there are a variety of ways to reach the good, and it is precisely that variety which the current system stifles through its emphasis on quantifying everything. Only a system of education that takes into account that we have values already and doesn’t try to merely force or charm information into us will be successful.


  1. The Object of Education is to better yourself. It is a Competition as well as a warm fuzzy feeling that comes from being the best. A good teacher in any field Leads. and sets the agenda,places benchmarks for advancement, there does seem to be parallels between a good academic, and a quarterback as well as a Drill instructor

  2. @ David: Sort of – education can never completely leave the metaphor of war (“we’re conquering ignorance”) behind. When I’m through with Plato’s “Laws” I’ll have more to say on this topic.

    Right now, the major issue is that “value” isn’t on the table, not at all. I don’t know how a serious discussion about education can start from discipline/method alone.

  3. About your first point of rebuttal, do note that college QBs will have played for several years at this point, making it possible to quantify their performance.

    This is exactly Gladwell’s point. Teachers are expected to complete a degree in education and become teachers. Their ability to teach is never evaluated, just their ability to complete their degrees.

    The ideal way would certainly be a mix of both apprenticeship and classroom teaching. Classroom teaching will give them the knowledge while apprenticeship will allow to quantify their natural talent in communicating with students. Something that is completely missing currently.

    I have had so many terrible teachers that I can only completely agree with his conclusion.

  4. I read most of the article mentioned. I skipped all the quarterback stuff because I knew where he was going with it and I really wanted to see what he had to say about education and teaching. One of the things that I think that it fails to mention is what I have noticed….those teachers who voluntarily go to professional development, from an early start (first three years) are much more likely to be the better teachers. Those who avoid PD, even on the mandatory meeting level, tend to be those least likely to succeed teachers. There are only a few exceptions. But this is my reality.

  5. Lewin’s projection system only applies to QBs taken in the first two rounds of the draft. This makes the scout’s role very important as they effectively choose who is evaluated by this system.

    Therefore if a guy didn’t start in college alot(Brady, warner) or was injured, then Lewin’s system does not apply.

    I think the thing missed in this article in both cases is situation. Did Harrington really ever have a chance at Detroit? How can we compare him and other top picks who were not really in the same situation.

    From a teaching point of view, the logistical problems are what get me. Seems like something that should be given a shot though.

  6. “Is it really as quantifiable as the article says?”

    Yes and no, I think. Some parts are quantifiable. Some are only quantifiable once you get out of school (into the NFL if you like). Other parts simply help you in ways that aren’t quantifiable at all. … And some things just screw you up. :)

  7. I guess it depends on how you see the quarterback. quarterback by himself cant win the game. His job is to introduce and execute plays that will allow the team to win. Every player doesnt have the same ability or desire to function in the game. WHat the quarterback must do is to know all the team members. To know their strenths and weakness. Then craft a gameplan that will bring out the best in each of them. Only experiance and training will allow him to do so. Natural talent while desireable will not be sufficient in the big leagues.

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