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Matching Reforms

It’s surprisingly difficult to find dispassionate arguments for reforms that harm teachers’ interests. I imagine this might be due to most academics having a strong pro-teacher bias so the type of people arguing against teachers usually are rabid crazies on the right. But I suspect that I’m susceptible to bias since both my parents, my sister, and my sister-in-law are all teachers and I like teachers. Therefore, I do my best to search out sober arguments to penetrate that potential bias. Megan McArdle does an admirable job at presenting clear arguments for weakening certain teacher benefits without demonizing teachers and while acknowledging reform pitfalls.

Her whole piece is worth reading so I encourage it, but even if we accept her argument that making it easier to fire teachers outweighs its downsides, she rests her argument on the matching reform of being able to compensate teachers much differently.

At a minimum, making teachers easier to fire needs to be paired with extensive reforms: a move towards defined contribution rather than defined benefit plans (which make a mid-career job loss catastrophic); elimination of seniority and useless credentials as the primary criteria for setting pay; broadening the recruiting base by eliminating a requirement for ed degrees; and a shift towards paying teachers more, especially in math and science.  I also think it’s absolutely crucial to set up some sort of Federal bonus to recruit high-performing teachers to the lowest-performing districts–a bonus sizeable enough to attract top teachers, and available only on one-year contracts.

Note that she says, “at a minimum”! Does she believe that if these extensive reforms aren’t linked together that we should still dissolve teachers’ benefits in the way she suggests. Despite some of her wording, I actually suspect she would say, “yes,” but I can’t be sure. It seems difficult to believe that we could sustain public support for paying teachers even higher wages in order to maintain administrative flexibility without teacher quality suffering mightily. I’m sure it is exaggerated because of the economic climate, but there is already consistent complaints that teachers get paid too much even though we pay our teachers so little compared to other countries.

Paying teachers high enough wages to entice attractive candidates and keep the best performers is challenging in a institution that isn’t committed to making profits. In business it makes sense to pay competitive wages because if you don’t you lose out on the profits those extra wages pay for. But the bottom line for schools isn’t profits, it’s education. It’s much more difficult to determine what the marginal dollar buys in student learning so it’s easy for political support for higher wages to dry up. Think recessions.

If you agree that the pubic benefit demands a role for state funded education there is a need to maintain a constant level of support for competitive teacher compensation. I’d support testing McArdle’s extensive reforms, but worry that the diffuse benefits bought at the more concentrated cost to the taxpayer might be too difficult to keep those competing interests from pulling apart. I’m pessimistic on the prospect of the culture changing enough to entrench sustained support.

Categories: Education, Megan McArdle
  1. Bill
    March 12, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Agree. As long as public education is funded primarily through local property taxes, there will be no wide support for expanding teacher compensation-even if it came with a call for greater accountability. Its not so much that the general public disfavors teachers, but that they loathe government and taxation. Only at the local budget level can voters actually command some of this anger-and they do.

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