Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:02 pm

Predicting job success when it counts most

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 3:02 pm
Tags: , ,

How do you tell when someone you’re thinking about hiring will succeed in the job you’re hiring for? In my experience hiring reporters for the paper, past success — as measured not necessarily by awards and prizes but by the caliber of work done (including but not limited to the four or five clips we typically ask for from applicants) and the creativity and leadership shown in past problem-solving — usually is a very good indicator. And even that package of attributes is not totally reliable.

And even in my line of work, a lot is riding on the outcome. Recruiting and hiring for an open reporting job costs a significant percentage of what we pay in salary and benefits in a year. In some other lines of work, it can run 40 to 50 percent of the position’s annual compensation.

So imagine the kind of money riding on the choice of a quarterback for an NFL team. And then imagine the nonfinancial but infinitely more important issues riding on the choice of a teacher.

Malcolm “Freakonomics” Gladwell didn’t just imagine it, he went looking for the recruiting answer in both lines of work. And in those lines of work, he found, predicting success is a whole lot more of a crap shoot than in my line of work:

[Pro scout Dan] Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary [quarterback] draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Because the game of pro football is so much faster than the college game, particularly on defense, it’s much harder for quarterbacks, even the best in the college game, to succeed in the pros. Part of that difference, he observes, has to do with the offensive strategies college teams typically employ as opposed to the pro teams. But those strategy differences are driven by the speed of pro defenders — even the big, heavy ones. And you don’t have to be a football expert, or even to watch a lot of games, to see the difference.

In teaching, where the stakes are immeasurably higher even if the money involved doesn’t suggest so, there’s good news for parents, teachers and students: We’re learning a lot more about what is likely to make a successful teacher than pro scouts are about what makes a college QB likely to succeed in the NFL, as this examination of a recording of a teacher in action shows:

Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which [Bob] Pianta [the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education] said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that [previously examined] subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe.

Writ large, the inability to predict success accurately during the hiring process is probably a significant drag on the economy. But if you’re a parent, you probably care a lot less about that than about how well one or a handful of teachers can help your kids learn (and learn how to learn). And if we’re not expert, at least we’re getting better.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: