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Friday, November 6, 2009

Confounding Teacher Recruitment by Discouraging the Best

"Good teachers matter. The data on that are clear. If we want more talented people in the classroom, a first step toward encouraging them would be to stop discouraging them."

I did not expect to see a piece about education under Yahoo Personal Finance, but there it was. What would an economist, Charles Wheelan PhD, say about education? Usually it is educators (like me) who write about education. The fact he is not an educator may be a point in his favor. At least he will not have an educator's biases. On the other hand, not being an educator, he may not understand the shortcomings of applying a business model to schools.

He implies that “alternative league” players become teachers, and because they are “alternative league” players, they naturally resist the threat that merit pay proposals represent.

The idea of some kind of merit pay has been kicking around for 20 years, if not longer. But this discussion almost always focuses on how compensation practices affect the incentives (and therefore the behavior) of existing teachers.

In fact, too many teachers chose education precisely for the cozy situation of job security with no accountability.

Economists refer to this phenomenon as adverse selection. Individuals use private information (their expected productivity in this case) to sort themselves into a job with a compensation structure that suits them best.  Public education is the equivalent of the alternative league.

His wife is about to make a mid-career change into teaching math, so very soon she will be able to enlighten him about the realities of our education system. Apparently she has already begun.

First, all prospective employees must undertake two years of full-time specialized training, at their own expense, just to be considered for a job. Study after study has shown that this training has zero connection to subsequent performance at the firm, but Company B sticks to this screening mechanism anyway.

… snip...

As you may have guessed, Company B is public education.

I do not know about you, but I can almost hear his wife talking as if I were right there sharing breakfast with them.

Prospective teachers jump through hoops because state law says they have to. If a state requires that all public school teachers take a course on the history of discrimination against left-handed children, then training programs will make a fat living offering courses on the history of discrimination against left-handed children. The state requires the course, education schools offer it, and future teachers must take it. There is nothing in that process to ensure that it actually produces better teachers. 

I agree with something Dr. Wheelan says right now.

Good teachers matter. The data on that are clear. If we want more talented people in the classroom, a first step toward encouraging them would be to stop discouraging them.

He strongly implies that merit pay will attract higher quality aspirants to teaching.

The most pernicious aspect of the public education pay structure is that it discourages motivated, productive, energetic people from entering the profession in the first place.

Between the pay structure and the certification requirements, the situation is well nigh hopeless.

We compound that problem with ridiculous teacher certification laws.  Despite a steady flow of evidence that our current teacher training requirements have essentially no correlation with performance in the classroom, most states continue to mandate that prospective teachers undertake expensive and time-consuming courses. That, too, is a huge deterrent for bright young people who might otherwise be attracted to teaching.

One day his synthesis of education and economics may produce pearls of insight. I look forward to a regular place at his breakfast table.

Readers interested in this post might also like

“Education... From Cradle Through a Career”

What does Education Reform Look Like?

Teachers Teach Too Much?

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