Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gladwell's Outliers, and teachers & quarterbacks

Malcolm Gladwell has been getting some unsurprising backlash in the wake of his latest book, "Outliers." But I find myself thinking about David Leonhardt's interesting opinion in the New York Times Book Review, where "Outliers" is looked upon not as a business self-help book, but as a political essay--in other words, according to Leonhardt, Gladwell is focusing on how environment and context matter in success and excellence, and is making a pitch to society to create more situations where "outliers" can grow.

Gladwell takes up this theme again in this recent New Yorker article. Comparing the process to find great teachers (who, he says, improve learning of their students by 50% over the average) to that of locating great NFL quarterbacks, he points out the fallacies inherent in a system of university certification when teacher excellence cannot be shown other than by demonstrated competence in the position. Gladwell argues against tenure and for, instead, seeding lots of teachers into the system, winnowing them to the very best, and paying them accordingly.

Which connected with Sunday's NYT magazine article ("The Two-Tier Teacher Contract") about a similar process being tried by the new chancellor of the Washington, DC, school system.

So, perhaps "Outliers" has done its job. It's got us talking and writing about something important.

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