Monday, August 8, 2011

My disconnect with Jon Chait

Let me begin with Jon Chait being one of my favorite writers, a must-read, and a person with whom I agree > 90% of the time. I think that the one area we really differ is with teaching:

I think Palko's point is pretty obviously just wordplay, but I suppose I didn't express myself as well as I could have. Being a professional, to most people, means having the opportunity to gain higher pay and recognition with greater success. Such a system also, almost inevitably, entails the possibility of having some consequences for failure. Teaching is very different than most career paths open to college graduates in that it protects its members from firing even in the case of gross incompetence, and it largely denies them the possibility to rise quickly if they demonstrate superior performance.

Obviously the realistic possibility of being fired for gross incompetence would not in and of itself do much to attract more highly qualified teachers, but the opportunity to receive performance-differentiated pay would.

I think I can put my finger on the point of disconnection here. I would gladly take employment In which hard work and results were rewarded (and people who were bad fits were quietly eased out of the profession). These are my favorite work places, as I never want to be in a role where I am not contributing in a substantive way.

But what I think worries me about the attack on teacher tenure is that it seems to be coupled with a small government/austerity movement. I worry that the endgame is no tenure and less compensation (regardless of performance). That approach would open up higher education to worse incentives than it has now and increase the pressure for a parallel (and private) system. Looking at the cost of higher education, my concern is that the poor might be priced out of the education market.

I might be wrong about this pattern, but many countries have balanced job security with quality education (e.g. Canada, Sweden, Finland). I am not against a new pathway, I am just not sure how to increase compensation (to balance against the loss of job security) in the current environment. But I note that Jon Chait is coupling increased compensation opportunities with decreased job security. A reasonable trade, so long as it doesn't fall victim to the desperate need to shrink government that is in the very air these days.

If there is a path forward, I would actually be happy to revisit this question in a positive way. But why is this a burning question in the middle of a period of austerity budgets when it is unclear where the revenue for such reforms would come from?

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