Over at the Federalist, Jason Richwine has produced a spectacularly bad piece of thought leadership entitled "Why We Shouldn't Raise Teacher Pay." (h/t to Curmudgucator Shannon Jenkins). It's just as bad as you think it will be.
So why should we look at it.
Often, the bad arguments circulating the world of thinkiness are tucked away, hidden in the midst of not-entirely-stupid things. They are the tetanus-encrusted rusty needles in a stack of reasonably-healthy hay. Dealing with these arguments often involves teasing the rotten parts out of their surroundings. So it can be helpful to get a clear look at them, unencumbered by anything sensible. Dumb, in its naked unadulterated form. If we can get a good look at the rusty needle, we are better prepared to recognize it in the haystack.
Jason Richwine has kindly presented us with a hay-free rusty needle.
Our starting problem
Richwine notes that Vergara has now made it "possible to pry the least-effective teachers from their sinecures" by removing the "barrier" of tenure and reformsters now face the challenge of replacing them with "new and better" teachers? But how do we attract them?
It’s not so easy. Even without the tenure obstacle, putting the best
teachers in the classroom is a more challenging problem than many
reformers will admit. One of the most common reformist prescriptions is
raising teacher pay to attract stronger applicants. The logic seems
simple, even obvious. But raising teacher pay will not work.
In fact, it could be counter-productive. The reason lies not just with
the well-known difficulty in predicting who will be a good teacher, but
also with the entrenched hiring system of public schools.
We're already on the wrong track
Richwine starts in by saying that teachers are already paid too much. He cites an AEI report from 2011, and the report's conclusion, which I will now oversimplify, is that the old "teachers make less than other highly educated college grads" is bogus. We need to compare teachers to other similarly-educated grads-- in other words, teachers. Put another way, teacher income can't be compared to engineer income because the teacher didn't learn how to be an engineer.
However, public school teachers do make more than private school teachers, ergo, public school teachers are overpaid. Public school teachers do make less than other college-educated professions, but that's because they're teachers. It's their own damn fault.
So teachers are already overpaid and underperforming, so giving raises would not help. Unless, you know, it encouraged more top people to get a college education to become teachers in the first place.
School's turn down the brightest applicants
Richwine now presents us with a rusty needle the size of the Eiffel Tower.
He is puzzled-- deeply puzzled-- that when presented with the best and brightest with super-duper GPAs and specialized training from the Very Best Schools, school districts don't hire them. He cites Vanderbilt economist Dale Ballou's study (sadly behind a paywall), and he offers this daunting observation.
An education degree was generally preferred even for applicants preparing for a secondary-school position.
Yes, those damn schools keep hiring people with teaching credentials for teaching jobs.
No one knows for sure why this happens, but perhaps it’s the institutional culture of public schools.
Well, yes. I notice that the institutional culture of hospitals leads to hiring doctors and nurses with actual doctor and nurse training. Lawyers offices are also pre-disposed to hire people based on having attended law school. On top of that, many schools operate in states that actually require teaching credentials to get a teaching job, so go figure.
Richwine's point is pretty clear. Smart people with college degrees are better teachers than people who have trained to become teachers.
And let's look at two other dumb assumptions packed into this complaint:
1) Having the best GPA makes you a teacher.
It's true. If you don't understand a concept, you're probably not going to teach it very well, or at all. But it does not follow that having a superior understanding of the subject means you can teach it well. Is there anybody who doesn't have a story about a teacher or professor who was brilliant in his field, but who couldn't teach worth a damn?
The assumption here is that being knowledgeable is the only piece needed to complete the teacher puzzle. Once you totally understand the subject, teaching it to other people is a nothing, an afterthought, on a par with breathing. You just, you know, do it. If you got good grades in college, that is good enough.
2) Teaching is not an actual skill set.
There are skills sets, bodies of knowledge, and bridges between the two that teachers need to know. If I think teaching is like breathing, then it seems silly to talk about sending someone to school to learn about it. But if teaching requires learning and practice in techniques, then I need somebody who has those skill sets. And I have to believe that those skill sets exist.
But, Richwine asks, even if the entrenched educational biases can't be overcome, might it not make sense to pay more and then attract a larger pool, from which the best could be selected. No, Richwine answers, it would not.
Higher teacher pay equals lower teacher quality
Is there an economist specialization in Undercutting Public Education with Wonky Stats Juggling? Because Richwine is going to cite Ballou and another economist named Michael Podgursky who determine that higher pay lead to lousier teachers. Their reasoning goes something like this:
* Higher pay = less retirement as teachers stick around for $$
* Higher pay = more applicants
* More applicants = less chance of single applicant getting job
* Lower chance of getting job = fewer people going into teaching
And here comes the important conclusion--
* The people who are discouraged from going into teaching will be the smart, capable ones, while the sucky ones will stay. In other words, Richwine is offering up a fancy version of "Those who can't, teach."
Richwine offers a thought-experiment anecdote in which a mediocre lady goes into teaching because, apparently, failed teachers can always get into an administration job. But a smart man could be an engineer instead, so his opportunity cost is greater, because if he doesn't get to be a teacher, he'll have lost the chance to be an engineer. Also, he's smart to assume that since he's smart and capable, he will not be considered by schools. Because schools absolute hate hiring capable teachers.
This scenario is somehow completely different from a situation where the smart man considers teaching but decides that he can't hope to support a family or have a complete career (thanks to the handy way that Vergara removed the "barrier" of tenure and job security), and so he decides to be an engineer instead because that way he can make a freaking living.
You see, any engineer could be a teacher, but as noted above, teachers could never have been engineers.
So what does Richwine think the answer is?
Well, Richwine has consulted the work of still more economists, and his answer is this:
Lower the entry requirements to become a teacher.
That's it. Just let anybody who has a bachelor's degree become a teacher, and then once you've got them in a classroom, take your time to sort them out. And make it really hard to get tenure.
Seriously? Let's look at some of the ways this is dumb.
First, flinging wide the gates to enter the profession would have one immediate effect-- greatly increasing the pool of applicants. But just a couple of paragraphs ago, Richwine assured us that a larger pool of applicants was a Very Bad Thing that would lower quality by scaring away people who had better prospects in other fields. Plus-- remember-- we'd really like to lower the salary for teachers, which will also likely lower the applicants who have aspirations to, say, make a living in North Carolina (spoiler alert-- you can't do it by teaching). So whether you use my argument or Richwine's, this seems like a Bad Move.
Second, in a Richwine school, we're going to use students as employment testing tools. "Hey, kids, based on his BA in Math, we're going to let Mr. Schlubster try teaching you calculus for a year. If it turns out he's not really any good at it, too bad for you. With any luck we'll catch it before he screws up next year's class."
Are there first-year certified teachers who trash an entire year's worth of students? Sure. But Richwine's Just Let Anybody with a Pulse Teach program guarantees far more disasters as untrained pretend teachers experiment on students who were hoping to get an actual education. This is absolutely NOT student centered schooling.
What will have to happen for Richwine's vision to come true?
The creeping emphasis on credentials must be reversed. School
administrators must be willing to hire promising applicants who never
received the standard education-school training. Objective evaluation
systems must be adopted and refined. All parties must become comfortable
with a process that will increase teacher turnover.
"Become comfortable" with teacher turnover? So, a situation that tends to destabilize schools and hurt student learning is just a minor discomfort we have to adjust to, like a bad car heater in the winter.
In the meantime, I look forward to widespread adoption of his ideas. Law firms offering less and less money to new grads. Corporation announcing, "We will not offer bonuses this year because, quality." Why is it that absolutely nobody anywhere in any sector of the economy believes that lowering salaries is the best way to get more quality. Could it be that Richwine's idea is...well , dumb?
PS. Who is Jason Richwine?
Richwine is a policy analyst in DC who used to work for the Heritage Foundation. You may remember him from his Harvard PhD dissertation. Richwine is the guy who argued that immigrants are genetically hampered by low IQ's, and that the US should screen to keep them out (but hide it behind a political smokescreen). His is a name worth knowing, if only to avoid it. He has a blog loaded with plenty of reformsters baloney. He is a man who appears to lack skills in hiding his rusty needles.
This is the argument for TFA writ large. We don't need trained teachers. We don't need to pay teachers well. All we need is a steady stream of BA-holders who will pass through schools by teaching for just a few years. They'll be cheaper, they won't unionize, and we won't have to finance pensions for them. They will probably mostly suck, but at least they'll pass through the system quickly without requiring much of it. And since we've lowered the "barrier" of tenure, if any of them accidentally turn out to be a problem, we can just fire them.