Teachers Unions, Performance Pay, and Autonomy
Conor’s latest posts (here and here) sparked off a pretty decent debate in the comments over at The American Scene, and led to a good follow-up here at the League via Brother Will. Over at TAS you essentially have Conor et al arguing against teachers unions and in favor of performance pay; and you’ve got Freddie and others in the comments arguing that the performance pay better be pretty damned good to give up the job security that tenure and the unions provide.
So we have a few problems to address. First is the notion of quantifying performance. There are obviously cases where you’ve got an exceptional teacher. Everyone knows they’re great. The students love them. The parents love them. Other teachers love them. And then there are cases where teachers are obviously bad. They’re disliked, have terrible results, etc. But I’d say most of the time the situation is much, much more difficult – most teachers are hard to quantify. It’s hard for many reasons, including who their students are, where their school is, how the funding is at that school, how the teachers at the school work together, who the principal is, and so on and so forth. So the government wants to quantify the performance (for whatever reason, not currently teacher pay, though) and the only way to do that is to use standardized tests, graduation rates, and future success of students.
Of course, standardized testing is a terrible metric (and the others aren’t much better) for student or teacher success. Standards require uniformity, and across the country uniformity simply doesn’t exist. A lot of the new data on learning indicates that even across one school, or one classroom, countless differences exist in how students learn. Some students are visual learners, others very physical, still others social, and so on and so forth. Some students do very well when they are lectured to and assigned long papers; others do better when put in group projects. Some are good test-takers, others are not. By forcing teachers to teach to tests we leave a lot of these kids behind. By paying teachers based on abstract and arbitrary national (or even local) standards, we are going to sabotage teacher performance because we’re going to ignore how kids learn, and inevitably how teachers ought to teach. Any professors out there want to start teaching to national standardized tests?
I didn’t think so.
Unions can be a problem at times. There’s no doubt about it. Sometimes teachers need to be fired, and maybe some rules need to be altered in order to pave the way to a better system. But that doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem, which is that we have a shortage of teachers, and since we have a shortage of teachers it’s going to make school districts a lot less likely to let the bad ones go, or to prevent them from attaining tenure after their first two or three years.
So how do we recruit better teachers and get rid of the bad ones while not facing a major nation-wide shortage of educators? How do we keep teachers? Well, it’s not just pay that’s a problem. This is why you see talent going to private schools (parochial and otherwise) as well as to charter schools. Often at both the pay is lower than at public schools. The real differences are two-fold.
First, the student body at parochial and charter schools is different. It’s generally made up of students who have parents that care, to some degree, about their kids’ education. That is a huge difference. The performance between a kid whose parents are involved vs. the performance of a kid whose parents aren’t involved in their education – regardless of class/race/etc. – is huge. Generally, the performance of the teacher, as well as the job satisfaction of that teacher, is going to increase. So the trade-off between money and job satisfaction accounts for a lot.
The second thing that a teacher gets when they sign up for a charter school gig or a job at a private school is autonomy. This is the big one. This is the thing that standardized testing and national meddling absolutely demolishes. Autonomy allows a teacher (and to another extent, a school) to teach to their students, rather than to the test. Every class is different. Ever situation and student is unique. We can’t deny this. It will never change. We have to be able to adapt, and adaptation is not allowed in a system of national standards.
Another problem with uniformity rather than autonomy is that teachers become chattel rather than professionals. What accounts for a feeling of professionalism? Pay? Not really. A professor often doesn’t make much more than a high school teacher, but in one job you are considered an “academic” or a “scholar”, and in the other you’re “just” a teacher. In one you’re allowed pretty free reign over content and approach, and in the other you’re increasingly forced to follow the national standards. This is one reason accreditation and actual teaching degrees for teachers make sense to me, in the same way that law degrees and bar membership make sense for lawyers. It’s important to treat our teachers as professionals, just like lawyers or professors. To do this we need to accredit them, then give them autonomy over their own teaching style, with minimal restrictions. Oversight is obviously necessary to root out cases of negligence, but just like involving our students in their own learning process, involving our teachers in the teaching process is vital to success.
So let’s pay teachers more across the board. Let’s give them back the reigns to their own classrooms, and put an end to the horribly self-defeating age of standardized testing. And finally, let’s open up the trade-school model to give students not destined to academia a path to educational and economical success. There’s a lot more to say about all of this, but I hope this is a good starter.
Targeting the unions, or replacing the model we have with one of performance compensation – these things sound nice on the surface, but they ignore the unquantifiable nature of our education. Attempts to quantify inevitably backfire. In the end, schools simply don’t fit the market mold. As Matt Yglesias recently wrote, markets don’t explain or solve everything:
Markets produce great levels of consumer satisfaction. And when consumer satisfaction is all we can ask for, then markets are great. What should a necktie or an MP3 player do, other than make the consumer happy? The Soviet Union was a fashion disaster and horribly backwards in terms of entertainment. But with regard to some things, we can make objective measures. Soviet apartment buildings are incredibly ugly, but they stood up. Of course our apartment buildings stand up, too. But sometimes consumer satisfaction is significantly in tension with objective measures.
Matt was writing ab0ut health care, of course, but both health care and education are subjects which I believe can’t be solved entirely through market measures. I believe in the public school system, I just think the approach coming from both sides is wrong. The simple fact of the matter is we’re too obsessed with meddling. We need to back off, fund our schools, and give our teachers the job of educating our kids, rather than politicians and bureaucrats. We also need to place schools back within our communities, rather than as detached entities or glorified baby-sitters. But that’s a story for another time.
By the way I find this LA TIMES article that spawned this whole debate extraordinarily biased, relying far too much on the anecdotal evidence of some bad cases (which are no doubt unforgivably bad) and glossing over many of the real facts about our very flawed educational system – mainly that the problem isn’t so dramatic. It’s one of stagnation and lack of creativity, not one in which horrible predatory teachers are plaguing our every school getting away with whatever they please.
On to you Mark…? Will…? Freddie…?