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Free Market Reflexes in Education

Anyone who has run a business realizes that what matters more is what you do with the workforce you have.

I’ve been reading a lot about education recently, for reasons that are not worth going into here. I don’t know that much about the area, so I’ve been reading some background stuff and review articles, including a Hamilton Project white paper by Michael Greenstone, Adam Looney, and Paige Shevlin.

It’s pretty mainstream, self-professed “third way” stuff, with a heavy dose of measurement and performance evaluation. Basically they repeat over and over again that educational policies should be based on evidence and new programs should go through rigorous assessments. There are a fairly strong tilt toward market mechanisms and some idealistic naivete about practical problems (e.g., “One way to [improve accountability systems] is to develop tests that measure the skills children should learn”), but nothing too outrageous in substance.

The white paper, however, betrays a certain conceptual bias that I find disturbing, even in topical areas where it seems otherwise reasonable.

Here’s one example, in the context of teacher effectiveness:

“According to one estimate, if average effectiveness could be raised enough to put American students on par with those from the highest-performing countries it could be worth as much as $100 trillion in national productivity benefits over the next eighty years (Hanushek 2010). The bottom line from this recent body of research is that potential benefits from increasing teacher quality are enormous.

“Realizing the gains from effective teachers requires attracting more qualified people into the profession and then identifying and retaining those who are most effective.”

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.

To a certain degree, this is the banking/consulting view of the world. Investment banks and consulting firms largely hire (at least for some positions) based on abstract quality measures that have relatively little to do with the skills you actually use in banking and consulting, and then use their review processes to weed out low performers. But even they (consulting firms, at least) place a large emphasis on on-the-job training, because they realize that many of their new recruits really have no relevant skills or knowledge.

This attitude is further reflected in this passage:

“But the relevant question is whether the combination of relatively low salaries and relatively high deferred benefits is the right formula to attract talented young people with many career opportunities to teaching, and to retain the most effective teachers throughout their career. . . .

“The bottom line, however, is that the teaching profession can have difficulty attracting the most talented people when relative salaries are in decline.”

Again, I agree with the basic point: we should pay teachers more. But it’s this idea of “talented young people with many career opportunities” and especially “the most talented people,” and the faith that it betrays in an abstract conception of talent, that bothers me. I’m arguably the kind of abstractly “talented” person the authors are thinking of. I have fancy degrees, and got a job at McKinsey, and did well in business, and wrote a bestseller. But I would have made a lousy K-12 teacher. I think I’m a decent law school teacher,* but that’s because my strengths are useful in a classroom with highly educated, highly motivated students, and my weaknesses would be much more of a problem in primary or secondary school. (For example, for the most part I don’t have to worry about motivating my students, or about discipline issues.)

As a policy recommendation, I have no problem with paying teachers more. At the margin, there’s probably some kind of positive correlation between abstract “talent” (as defined by, say, McKinsey or Goldman or TFA) and teaching effectiveness, so some of the people who would switch from banking to teaching would actually be good teachers—although, as the authors acknowledge, college GPA and college prestige are not valid predictors of teaching effectiveness. Maybe that’s all the authors mean. 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.

* Actually, I get good student evaluations, but the people who study these things say that there is no link between student evaluations and actual teaching effectiveness, which seems right to me.