Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oh, it's that simple

Yglesias is writing about education again. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I read Yglesias and admire his writing and thinking...periodically. He seems to make sense to me on foreign policy, he offers a mixed bag on transportation (though I grant it may sometimes be that he's underexplaining in the blog format), but I have found his writing on education to be more miss than hit.

He's taking requests again, posts in which he invites readers to offer topics on which he can comment, which is a pretty sweet way to garner blog ideas (some of us have to think them up on our own). Today he answers a question from a reader who wonders why the answer to every education problem is to "find better teachers." The reader is curious as to why education is the only area in which that's the solution, citing a desire to see better soldiers and doctors and nurses.

Yglesias answers that the quality of our military has been a concern, that there was a concerted effort to rebuild in the wake of the Vietnam War, and that we have accomplished that (and fought off any efforts to reinstate the draft, which would lead to lower professionalism). He goes on to say that all public services should be concerned about quality:
Some cities, for example, have trouble offering police officers salaries that are as high as what’s offered in neighboring suburbs. This tends to lead to problems with the quality of the staff available to urban police departments which, in turn, makes it more difficult to keep crime under control.
This is, of course, true, but the dilemma comes from the reality that not every municipality can pay above-average salaries. Also, that he uses "should" indicates that he's not really answering the question.

Then, finally, he comes to education, and he jumps on a familiar sandbox: since we have evidence that teachers who go the non-traditional route for becoming certified do as well as teachers who go through the usual process, we should:
(a) relax the preemptive screening so as to make it easier for anyone with a college degree to get into the classroom, (b) make the tenure decision more strictly tied to student achievement, and then (c) take advantage whatever increase in your potential labor force step (a) has given you to make it possible to in step (b) dump the bottom X% of the worst-performing teachers. To all of this I would be strongly inclined to add (d) start paying people more to further increase the size of the labor pool and make step (c) all the more effective.
To even know where to begin parsing out the problematic logic from all this is difficult, so I will make no effort at completeness. But let's look at (a).

There is a big difference between those teachers who have followed a non-traditional route and "anyone with a college degree." The former tend to have actual experience, so they understand the subject matter deeply, plus they have almost certainly mentored and taught younger employees. That, added to their clear motivation, makes it highly unlikely they would be worse than the great mass of existing teachers.

As for (b), I am certainly in favor of changing the tenure rules for our teachers, because they ask laughably little of people in return for a massive reward. But tying it to student achievement requires a near-perfect evaluation function, and we are a long way from having that. We can go with the simplistic, the results of standardized tests, but I can guarantee that we won't eliminate errors. It is a myth to say that we have the ability to measure a teacher's competence in any but a crude way; if we can't, then we are far over-promising when we claim that we will inevitably upgrade the profession.

I'm not arguing in support of the current system, it certainly has its problems, but we need to be quite wary about moving to a system in which we throw open the doors and let results sort out the winners and losers. It's easy, it's attractive, and there are obviously people who believe we can optimize the outcomes of 3,000,000 teachers in doing so.

But let's remember the bad results of this experiment. We're not talking about a mediocre accountant sneaking through the process, leading to a sloppy audit. We're talking about putting the education of numerous children in the hands of someone who's done nothing more than to earn a B.A. Sometimes that's going to work great, sometimes it won't, but we know that you can't just burn a year or two for a kid, chalk it up to the luck of the draw, and make it up later.

Maybe changes do need to be made. Maybe we need to make something like the existing process even harder, attempt to weed out the bad apples even earlier. But I cannot believe that we're just going to hand over a classroom to anyone with a pulse for two or three years and "see how it goes." All we will likely prove is that, yes, our schools can be worse than they are now.

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