Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Firing Teachers


In the same blog post we have:

But I also recognize that this is no panacea. At a minimum, making teachers easier to fire needs to be paired with extensive reforms: a move towards defined contribution rather than defined benefit plans (which make a mid-career job loss catastrophic); elimination of seniority and useless credentials as the primary criteria for setting pay; broadening the recruiting base by eliminating a requirement for ed degrees; and a shift towards paying teachers more, especially in math and science. I also think it's absolutely crucial to set up some sort of Federal bonus to recruit high-performing teachers to the lowest-performing districts--a bonus sizeable enough to attract top teachers, and available only on one-year contracts.


Let me start by saying that I think there are some jobs that are too important to let any consideration intrude other than the best way to get the job done. Nuclear power plants, firefighters, poison control--I don't want to let other social goals, no matter how laudable, hamper their mission.

Teaching is one of those jobs. I just can't prioritize making teachers' work environments fair, interesting, or pleasant for them--not if there's any potential conflict with the goal of providing the best possible education for kids. Particularly disadvantaged kids, since I basically assume that educated and competent parents are going to ensure that their offspring are educated and competent. But where there are needy kids, my entire focus is on them. I want to make teachers' lives pleasant only insofar as this advances the goal of helping kids who need a lot of help.


Contra E. D. Kain, however, I don't think that all organizations should strive to minimize turnover. Why do fast food restaurants have turnover rates in excess of 100%, when they could lower them substantially by paying higher wages? Answer: because in a dirty, stultifying job like fast food service, it costs a lot in wages to reduce turnover a little, and people won't pay enough for a hamburger to justify those wages.

Okay, this seems like a slippery analogy but let us go with it. Ms. McArdle would like to make teaching into a high turnover profession. Okay, I can deal with that. She also thinks that it is so high priority that considerations like humane treatment are secondary to child outcomes. Curiously, I can deal with that too.

But what are the low job security professions with a high level of responsibility, high educational requirements and no limits on costs? Medical doctors come to mind but it's unclear to me that they represent the wage level that we should be shooting for.

I think a much more plausible story is that we have cut education to the bone. It's a large part of many state budgets (see California as a key example). The lack of resources has been partially helped by using job security and a sense of vocation in order to keep employee costs low. So what precise program cuts are we considering to raise wages or to pay "some sort of Federal bonus"? Or are we talking actual tax increases?

After all, according to Wikipedia, we spend $11,000 per student and have 76.6 million students in the United States. Is this really a place where we want to increase costs from?

Or, is the alterative to make education low cost and low skill? It has had this model in the past in the US (with the one room school house model) but that seems to contradict the importance of teaching. A lot of things are important and should not be trivialized. But is this really the best way forward?


  1. You link to one of the dimmest of dim bulbs and you expect sense? Intelligence? Intellectual rigor? You should be grateful that the post wasn't so incoherent that you were tempted to stick forks in your eyes.
    BTW - I didn't need to see the text beyond the blockquotes to recognize the style and rhetoric of McMegan. And just how long do you think Ms. McMegan would last as a Teaching Fellow in the Bronx, Oakland or south Boston? I'd put the over under at 3 minutes.

  2. Fair enough; I just wanted to point out that raising removing job security either requires some reallocation of resources or a change in quality of educator. In truth, I think that the most likely story is that teachers are being scape-goated for the loss of educational resources.

  3. Agreed. As for the McMegan argument: "broadening the recruiting base by eliminating a requirement for ed degrees," this shows her profound ignorance. In my cadre of Teaching Fellows, out of 12 prospects, 3 held PhD's (2 from UC and Yale) in science, one was a JD (he closed his practice to become a gym teacher) and the rest of us had MS or BS in science or math. McMegan with her U.Chicago pedigree wouldn't have made the first cut.
    The problem is not teachers, it's environment. It's the administration, it's the infrastructure, it's the poverty and social situation surrounding the schools. Teacher's aren't in it for the money or benefits, they're in it for the passion. I'm out of teaching and back in the lab. Me and the frau work 60 plus hours a week (She's a PI, I'm a Research Assistant) for little money. Why? Because were passionate about making a impact. People like McMegan are myopic in that they think the only motivator is money; that is the least motivating factor in a teacher's life. If they want to "throw money" at the problem, use it to fix the school's infrastructure, hire proper support staff, make sure teacher's don't have to buy supplies for the classroom.