With school starting, there seems to be a lot of chatter about how to fix our public schools. Of course, if there were a simple magic bullet for this, we'd have already shot it. Based on the stuff I have read and heard over the years, including this very interesting conversation on Econtalk, there are a few things we know for sure, and a few big hurdles to fixing things.
Here's what we know for sure
1) The value of good teachers to society is enormous!!
2) The negative effect of bad teachers is also enormous!!
3) Incentives matter, which is of course something we know about the world in general, and one of the few things you would find economists agreeing on.
That's about it for the knowable. Here's what we don't know:
1) How to "make" a good teacher.
2) How to accurately measure teachers to determine which ones are good and which should be selling Lady Kenmores.
3) How to get people who would be good teachers to teach, and keep them from burning out.
Of course, we do get a lot of bullshit from politicians about easy fixes. Conservatives say that the unions are to blame, and if we just got rid of them we could fire all the bad teachers, make schools compete and problem solved. And certainly they are right that unions have stood in the way of changes that would allow bad teachers to be fired, and incentive programs put in place to reward good performance. But, if you look at my list of "don't knows", well that won't fix it.
Even if there were no unions and we could fire all the bad teachers, we still need to replace them with good ones. And it is unlikely that any school district could afford the type of teacher pay that would attract good teachers and get them to stay. If fact, lack of unions would probably mean teachers in general were earning less, and getting fewer benefits and that would deter talented people from taking up the profession. And the competition argument is unproven. Some charter schools outperform regular schools, but that data I have seen does not show conclusive evidence that the existence of charters, or competition with private schools is definitely beneficial. Also, some "choice" programs, like the one in Jefferson County here in Colorado, seek to send money religious schools, which is both unconstitutional and not a good idea.
Liberals of course say we have to spend more money. While this is probably true in poorer districts, the data I have seen do not support the idea that money alone will fix the problem. The Economist published a study a few years ago comparing results among countries, and the countries that get the best results do not spend more than we do.
And everyone liked the idea of more testing, but that just gives schools an incentive to teach kids to do well on the test, no necessarily learn what they should. In the worst case, it gives the schools incentives to cheat, as has happened in Georgia.
So, what do we do? I wish I had an answer, because I think the problem is cultural, which is hard to overcome. And certainly, changing the work rules in schools would be a great first step. But then what?
First, we need a Bill James of Education, someone to come in and look at the data and get to the heart of how to measure success on the school and teacher level. The Econotalk I linked to above talks about some progress in this regard, and some problems.
But here is the really hard part. We need to identify young, enthusiastic, hard-working, talented people who would be good and teaching, and get them to become teachers. Then we have to pay them enough to keep at it, and make sure they don't burn out on it. Getting rid of the bad teachers won't help us much unless we can find better ones to replace them.
The problem is, in our society, teaching is not a high status profession. The Economist study mentioned earlier determined that in the countries that do the best job of education, it IS a high status profession. Teachers are chosen only from the top of their college classes, and becoming a teacher is considered a major achievement. This is a cultural issue, and culture is very hard to change. I fear that our since we consider teaching to be more of a mid-level achievement, that we will have a hard time making huge gains in improving our education.
Ok, so there it is. More depressing news from the Economics teacher. I promise in the next week that I will write here the story of Mr. Lynch, the one teacher I had in high school who had no business teaching. It is a hilarious story, but depressing none the less.