Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How did we miss this?

It's terrifying when Brad DeLong is more on top of interesting stories on education than we are!  But this is from James Kwak

I have no problem with the premise: better teachers improve student outcomes, which is worth a lot of money. But do you see what’s going on? To get better teachers, the authors say, requires ”attracting more qualified people” and then “identifying and retaining” the most effective ones.

That just doesn’t follow. And anyone who’s worked in an actual company should realize that. Yes, it’s always better to have better workers. One way to get better workers is to hire more effective people and to fire less effective people. But the other way—which, in most industries, is by far more important—is to make your current workforce more effective. You do that in part by figuring out what attributes or processes make people more effective, and in part by training people and implementing processes in ways that improve productivity.

The idea that the only way to improve teacher effectiveness (remember, they said “requires”) is to increase quality at the front end and link retention to quality on the back end is the kind of illogical, impractical inference you draw if you have a certain type of attitude toward workers: the attitude that there’s only one abstract attribute that matters (quality) and that it’s intrinsic and unchanging. What’s surprising is that this is a non-obvious kind of fallacy: again, anyone who has run a business realizes that what matters more is what you do with the workforce you have.
I think that the whole idea of organizations like Teach for America falls into the trap above.  Focusing entirely on the recruitment and retention piece and not at all on the teacher development piece.  In some ways this seems to be a malaise of our age -- the want to have plug and play human resources instead of developing the work force with patience and practice. 

The conclusion is interesting as well:

But I also suspect that there’s a feeling, maybe not among these authors, but among the billionaires who like investing in education, of “if only more people like us became teachers”—that there are highly productive people and less productive people, and all we need is to adjust the incentives so more of the former go into teaching. I don’t think the world is that simple.
 That would also be a big issue with the whole inter-state competition piece.  If you think ability is an intrinsic quality (and a scalar) that is invariant between positions then this type of approach is very sensible.  Alternatively, if you want job insecurity to be high, using fear to motivate employees is actually surprisingly effective.

That would put reform into an awkward place, wouldn't it?

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you included that last part. “if only more people like us became teachers” really boils it down.