Changing the Saints

Great story in SI by Don Banks about how the Saints defense was transformed, thanks to the efforts of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Forget football for a second (at least until Sunday)–this is one of the clearest organizational change stories I’ve heard in a while:

If you want the short answer of how the Saints went from being a 7-9 and 8-8 team in 2007-08, to this year’s “turnaround” 15-3 NFC champions, it has everything to do with Williams and his relentless emphasis on creating turnovers. …

“He came in and he made us obsessed about takeaways,” Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita said. “Obsessed.Every day in practice we’re the crazy team that’s picking up every loose ball, every incomplete pass, and returning it for a touchdown. If opposing teams could watch the way we practiced, they’d probably think we absolutely lost our minds. But now the obsession has become a habit.” …

“It was my No. 1 job when I came in the door; we had to do a better job of taking the ball away,” Williams said … “And remember this: They call them takeaways. They don’t call them giveaways. I don’t want to hear that. It’s not a turnover. It’s a takeaway. If you take that approach, you go try and take the ball all the time. It’s not something you just do half the time.”

Did it work? The Saints had a -4 turnover ratio last year but were +11 in turnovers this year (3rd best in the NFL). And they led the league in defensive touchdowns.

What makes a great teacher?

If you’re interested in teaching, this article by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic is a must-read. For years, people have speculated about what makes a great teacher.

But now there is data. It has been gathered painstakingly by Teach For America for over a decade, and it covers hundreds of thousands of kids. TFA linked the test scores of students to their teachers, so that TFA can spot patterns in the data: Which teachers are causing big boosts in the kids’ scores–for instance, advancing them by three grade levels in one year? And what traits do those star teachers have in common?

Read the article for the full scoop. But here’s one bit that fascinated me. The data suggested a “profile” of a great teacher, and so naturally, in hiring new teachers, TFA wants to match that profile. So they’ve begun to build an “outcomes-based hiring” system, and in doing so, there were some surprises:

Once a model for outcomes-based hiring was built, it started churning out some humbling results. “I came into this with a bunch of theories,” says Monique Ayotte-Hoeltzel, who was then head of admissions. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

Based on her own experience teaching in the Mississippi Delta, Ayotte-Hoeltzel was convinced, for example, that teachers with earlier experience working in poor neighborhoods were more effective. Wrong. An analysis of the data found no correlation.

For years, Teach for America also selected for something called “constant learning.” As Farr and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. “It’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis,” Ayotte-Hoeltzel says.

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work.

What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers.

Steven Farr, the guy who is leading this research at TFA, has a new book out — Teaching as Leadership — that suggests ways teachers can improve their effectiveness. I just ordered it from Amazon — can’t wait to check it out.