Thursday, November 7, 2019

Hanushek Offers Teachers A Grand Bargain

If there is anything we don't lack in the education sphere, it's economists who know all about how to make education work real betterer. Two faves are Raj Chetty and Eric Hanushek, who have both pushed some super-great ideas. You probably remember the one about how the right first grade teacher can mean you'll make umpty-zillion more dollars in your lifetime, a piece of foolery that might be called speculative economics, a house of cards based on so many tissue-thin assumptions, guesses and Hail Marys that it's hard to believe-- well, it boils down to sexy, memorable headline, so that's why you've heard it.

Anyway. Hanushek is over at EdWeek this week with a proposition, a proposal, a Grand Bargain, if you will-- but you probably shouldn't.

This guy, still.
Much of this is vintage Hanushek, but he's hung it on the current vogue for noticing that teacher4 pay is lousy and teacher working conditions are failing to attract hordes of awesome meat widgets. Sadly, this is what some folks think would be a grand solution.

Hanushek opens with some concern trolling-- teacher pay etc really is bad, as witnessed by tough job actions across the country over the past years, but "sequential appeasement of these outbreaks of union combativeness and teacher frustration will almost certainly not help the students and will likely make teachers worse off in the long run."

Hanushek is clear on the pay thing; he's done some of the research on the teacher penalty, aka the money that people give up to join teaching rather than other similarly-trained professions. And he is trying to dance on a thin line. On the one hand, he says, the low pay means that the teaching corps is not exactly the cream of the crop (and he throws in frickin' PISA results to underline his point, which is an odd  choice, given that US results have been mediocre forever, regardless of the ups and downs of the teaching pool). On the other hand, he says, "The bad balance between salaries and effectiveness does not mean that it is all right to bash teachers for not being better." And then he delivers his entry for the Backhanded Compliment Hall of Fame:

In fact, the nation ends up with a surprisingly good teaching force given the salary levels and working conditions. We attract many people who—for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you—are willing to take on the challenges of teaching.

Yes, I remember well the moment I realized that I could hear the call of what-have-you, and knew that I really wanted to pursue the something-or-other that could express my whatchamacallit somehow-or-other through kind of doing the teaching thingy. Thanks for noticing, sir.

But we're finally coming up on the meat of his argument, and it's the same old full-of-filler burger that he's pushed before. We need to fix schools by filling them with better teachers. How to do it?

First, he wants you to know that some teachers are more effective than others-- but we don't know what characteristics make some teachers more effective than others (but it's not education or longevity). Second, he wants to point out that simply raising salaries won't help, because it will retain both most and least effective teachers.

This is where the Grand Bargain comes in.

This bargain is simple: a substantial increase in teacher salaries combined with policies that produce a significant tilt toward more effective teachers.

Sigh. There are so many things wrong here, but this exercise in unicorn farming has been a favorite of modern reformsters.

First, we don't know what characteristics mark a highly effective teacher, so we inevitably go back to outcomes, aka test scores. The Grand Bargain has been proposed many times, and it's not that grand-- it just says "We'll pay the most money to the teachers with the highest test scores." But test score results are inconsistent and only cover math and reading. There's an underlying assumption here that's problematic-- the assumption that a teacher's effectiveness is some sort of set, permanent state, like their eye color or height. But with the exceptions of the extremes (superteachers and classroom disasters), most teachers are different levels of effectiveness on different days with different students. Teacher effectiveness is hard to measure in part because it is a moving target.

Hanushek has anticipated the argument about a lack of valid, reliable evaluation tools:

Mentioning evaluation often brings out a slew of arguments aimed at showing that any evaluation system—whether involving measures of student learning, supervisor and peer ratings, or parental input—has potential flaws. The claim that teachers can't be evaluated meaningfully stands in stark contrast, however, to what is seen in the vast majority of complex jobs across the economy.

Hanushek frames this as if these objections emerge as some rhetorical ploy; I'd say these objections emerge because there are real problems and people just keep pointing them out. And that last sentence-- I bet you think the next paragraph is going to offer an example of a complex job comparable to teaching that is meaningfully evaluated. Nope. He has no example to offer, and granted he has only so much space, but I'm going to argue that he has no example because there is no example because teaching is actually unlike any other profession. It stands in "stark contrast" to "what is seen" (by whom, anyway--oh, that passive voice) because the profession has some stark contrasts to other professions. For instance, health care professions might seem similar, but everyone who seeks medical help has the same basic goal-- to be made healthy. But the "customers" of schools have hundreds of different desired outcomes, from employable skills to bolstered self-esteem. Not to put too simple a spin on it, but education seems different because education is different.

So what else can Hanushek throw in? Perhaps some condescension.

To set a new, more positive path on evaluation, union leaders might take seriously one strand of their own rhetoric: We need to professionalize teaching. To some, professionalizing teachers means paying teachers the same as accountants. A more apt definition is professionals are people willing to be held responsible for their performance.

Really, dude? You are going to go with the old reformster whinge that teachers don't want to be held accountable for their performance? Because teachers are held accountable every day of their career. If you design a lousy lesson, you suffer some immediate accountability delivered by the roomful of small humans who will make you pay for your bad choice. Every parent has access to phones and email. Parenrts, administrators, board members, taxpayers--A teacher has a thousand bosses, and every one of them has some ideas about what that teacher should be doing.

Maybe what you want to say is that teachers should be subject to a formal accountability system that makes them pay a financial price for not meeting whatever standards we're measuring this week. But first-- as you've already acknowledged-- teachers have already paid a financial penalty for being teachers. And second-- and this is a huge one-- you don't have a functional, valid, reliable system for evaluating teachers, and until you do, teachers have to live with the possibility of those levers falling into the wrong hands, because here's the thing-- there is always someone who thinks we suck, someone who is a sure that we're a terrible teacher and a blot on the profession.

But to argue that because we don't want bad accountability systems, we don't want acountabillity at all-- that's just insulting. Teachers are just fine with accountability-- it's part of the what-have-you that drove us to teach in the first place, the drive to be able to look in the mirror and say, "You did good."

Hanushek winds up imagining that somehow such a system would involve union input and manages at the very last minute to throw in the old chestnut that "enhanced student achievement would engender broad economic gains across society." This is a piece of unsupported baloney,. but it fits the "if we just get everyone to score real high on the Big Standardized Test, poverty and income inequity will be erased and we won't have to address those issues at all" narrative. We've had years to see if this really works. Spoiler alert: it doesn't. One would hope that a truly professional economist would be willing to suffer some financial accountability for having pushed an inaccurate theory on education policy.

1 comment:

  1. I have been teaching 33 years. Rarely, have I met a really bad teacher. The years we have had the best teachers at our school has been a combination of hiring teachers who are intelligent, true help and mentoring, not just lip service, egos put aside, gentle prodding by other teachers, and teachers who personally want to get better in an environment where it is okay to ask for help.