Are Schools a Weak Link or a Strong Link Game?

For the past month I’ve been a little obsessed with podcasts. A bit like the time I made biscuits for nearly a month straight until I found the right recipe with the right balance of flakiness, buttery taste and exterior crunch. The Olmstead Café in Cary North Carolina had the winning recipe in case you are curious. Sporkful for all you eaters; Bruce Lee for all you philosophers; and Code Switch for those who wish to explore race and culture, are among my current favorites. But I digress.

This week I took a dive into Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. He has a three-part series reexamining the promise of higher education. Of course I started with the middle one in the series on food and then found that I had to listen to the one before and the one after. I’ll save my views on the Food Fight for another time. In his third of the series entitled My Little Hundred Million, he questions: Why are rich people giving to elite colleges that don’t need money (Stanford, Harvard, Princeton to name a few) instead of supporting smaller state colleges that need it most? He tells the story of Frank Rowan, who gave a $100 million gift to Glassboro State University in NJ even though he went to MIT. What gave me pause besides Frank Rowan’s voice which sounds uncannily like Warren Buffet, was Gladwell’s discussion of economists David Sally and Chris Anderson’s theory of weak and strong link games. They argue that soccer is a strong link game where how good your worst player matters more than how good your best player is. Basketball is more of a strong link game, channeling Stephen Curry (Go Warriors!) but they talk about Michael Jordan. Yes, Don Shalvey, I just put a sports analogy in my blog. This type of analysis made me wonder: Should we use more of a strong link strategy or a weak link strategy in schools? Would we dramatically increase student success for low income and minority kids by focusing on the best teachers or the most challenged teachers in a school? Given the data that we have from the Measures of Effective Teaching, I have a feeling that it’s probably more about the “middle links.” There are a large proportion of teachers right in the middle of the bell curve that need a lot more attention than they are getting. But I’ve sent a tweet to David Sally to see if he knows the real answer. Maybe a study we should fund this next year if it doesn’t already exist!