Thursday, September 15, 2011

Professionals and Advancement

A few years ago, a Fortune 500 company I was working with started worrying about retaining their technical people. The wages were competitive and the bonuses were good, but the concern was that statisticians, programmers and other people who were doing analytic work and who weren't interested in management really didn't have a career track. In other words, even with high salaries and incentive pay, it's difficult to hold on to good, highly skilled professions without offering some opportunity of advancement.

With almost all careers, we expect a certain level of ratcheting advancement. We generally assume that if we maintain a certain quality of work, we will see a more-or-less steady increase in either our compensation, our employability or our job security. This advancement can take all sorts of forms from traditional promotions to a salesman's contact list to a writer's readership, but whatever the form, it is exceedingly rare to find jobs where you start each year about where you started the last one and it's next-to-impossible to find one that would be considered a 'profession.'

(Of course, there are many freshwater economists who are deeply uncomfortable with this ratcheting effect, who would argue that an ideal labor market should have no memory, that the services provided by a long time employee should be treated no differently than any other commodity. Long time OE readers will probably know I don't agree with the idea that labor should be treated as just another market, but that's a topic for another time. For now we're talking about the way things are.)

The discussion of teacher compensation and job security has almost entirely ignored the larger question of advancement, looking at the unusual contractual protections afforded the profession but failing take into account the equally unusual limitations. Take a minute and try to think of professions that have the following career constraints:

Few opportunities to move up the org chart. Not only is the structure here relatively flat, but unlike many industries, the move to management is almost a complete break from your previous role. Thus 'rewarding' the best teachers by making them administrators is a questionable strategy. We obviously need exceptional principals but we can't have teacher career track focused on taking the best teachers out of the classroom;

Non scalable work. Even if you accept claims about class size not mattering (and there's a lot to dispute in the reasoning behind those claims), there are still hard limits to the number of fourth graders one person can teach in a year. Compare this to someone like a journalist who can, in a sense, sell the same piece of work a virtually unlimited number of times;

Bounded compensation. Though movement reformers talk a lot about different incentive pay plans, pretty much all of them are metric based and have pre-determined maximums;

Lack of entrepreneurial opportunities. It is true that administrators can go out and start their own charters but teachers can't start their own classes;

Limited chances for promotion through relocation. This does happen but it's discouraged with good reason. The winners tend to be high-income suburban schools. Add to this the logical results of movement reforms that effectively reduce job security for teachers in schools bad neighborhoods and you have a huge incentive to actually widen the achievement gap.

In other words, we have here another case of advocates for business-based solutions who don't understand how businesses actually operate. Not coincidently, this is also an area where conservatives with actual business experience (like Jim Manzi) tend to take more nuanced positions.

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