Yglesias: STFU!

I love Matt. He's smart and says what he thinks. He has a post up about "personnel quality" that you should read; the comments are the best part. As usual, MY's readers tear him a new one due to his penchant for siding with the union busters and the blame-the-teachers folks. Here is the post:
By Request: Personnel Quality

I liked NS’s other question too:
Why is “finding better teachers” such a preoccupation among self-described education reformers? Of course, we’d have a better education system if our teachers were better. We’d also have a better military if our soldiers were better and a better health care system if our doctors and nurses were better. Why is education the only policy area where “find better people” is treated as a workable solution?
With regard to soldiers, I would reject the premise. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War there was a very low level of interest in joining the United States military and consequently in order to maintain the required overall force size it was necessary to make recruiting standards quite low and to be pretty lax about who you would keep on. The rebuilding of the quality of the personnel employed by the military over the course of the 1980s and 1990s is one of the great prides of the officers who were involved. And when the Iraq War was leading to a personnel crunch and moves toward diluting recruiting standards there was, rightly, a great deal of hand-wringing over it. Concern about personnel quality is also one of, if not the, main reason why the military brass is generally very hostile to the idea of conscription and this is also why we’ve encouraged our NATO allies to abolish conscript and build smaller, higher-quality, more professionalized forces.

Quality of personnel should always be a concern across public services. Some cities, for example, have trouble offering police officers salaries that are as high as what’s offered in neighboring suburbs. This tends to lead to problems with the quality of the staff available to urban police departments which, in turn, makes it more difficult to keep crime under control.

With regard to teachers, though, it’s worth trying to be more specific since the debate has focused on a couple of particular points. In the United States, we tend to require teachers to do a lot of preemptive qualifying in terms of getting themselves certified. And then after a few years of teaching, they become eligible for tenure status. But we do have some fairly extensive experience with teachers going into the classroom without traditional certification. And the evidence suggests that such teachers are basically just as effective as the teachers who do have the traditional certification. The evidence also suggests that while teachers tend to get a lot more effective after their first couple of years of experience, they don’t get more and more and more effective as further time passes. Thus, the general shape of the teacher quality reform proposals is to (a) relax the preemptive screening so as to make it easier for anyone with a college degree to get into the classroom, (b) make the tenure decision more strictly tied to student achievement, and then (c) take advantage whatever increase in your potential labor force step (a) has given you to make it possible to in step (b) dump the bottom X% of the worst-performing teachers. To all of this I would be strongly inclined to add (d) start paying people more to further increase the size of the labor pool and make step (c) all the more effective.

But the need to have good people doing important public services is by no means unique to teaching and it certainly applies to the military.
And my favorite comment by a MY reader:
Skeptic Says:
December 30th, 2008 at 1:43 pm

I’m sorry, that’s just utterly utterly dumb. Stupid. Pathetic.

You want good education, lower your classroom size. That means more teachers, smaller classes. Invest in your students. Invest in resources for the school - music programs, athletic, drama, shop, computers, you name it. Establish a rock solid basic curriculum and then enrich it with lots of electives. Monitor your students performance and then establish streams or programs to encourage and support the brilliant, provide remedial help for those who did a bit of a boost in certain areas, and a low end stream. Identify and remove the disruptive. All of this takes money, patience and a genuine investment. Not something that Americans have a lot of interest in these days.

Much easier to simply go for the crack fix. I mean the quick fix.

Oh, and I certainly do love the ‘break the teachers union’. Yeah, because that’s certainly going to encourage quality teachers.
Now go read it.

Update: I just checked back and Skeptic has another comment. Who is this Skeptic? I like....
Skeptic Says:
December 30th, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Yeah, that’s it. It’s all about bad teachers. Get rid of the bad teachers, and the system will magically right itself and we’ll all be rubbing each other off in happy teddy bear land. Good for you, hope that works out for you all.

Yes, political correctness is at fault. People who are good at math and science just get sick of being told that the N*gg*r word is unacceptable and that you can’t sexually harass the prettier girl students.

Now, I don’t know if my educational experience is similar to most Americans. But here goes.

I went to elementary school, grades 1 through 6, a different teacher in year. Six teachers over six years.

Then I went to Junior High, a curriculum of 6 courses per year, with a different teacher specializing in the different subjects - math, history, etc. There was overlap, different teachers taught multiple classes, but I figure I was exposed to a minimum of 6 to 12 teachers, over three years and 18 courses.

High school, three more years, but increasing numbers of elective courses to choose from. Say 12 to 18 teachers.

All in all, I figure twelve years of schooling had me exposed for substantial periods to 24 to 36 teachers.

Were some of them awful? Sure, I remember a math teacher in high school who couldn’t find his ass with a flashlight. I remember a horiffic elementary school teacher who would pull kids pants down and spank them savagely in front of the class. Of the 24 to 36 I’d have said maybe 4 or 5 were truly terrible. Roughly 15% say, give or take.

That seems to be about average for the population. You look at any trade and the bottom fifteen per cent tend to be major league screw ups.

Were there good teachers? Yep. Not all of them. I remember a couple of really brilliant university professor level high school english teachers, a great biology teacher, a really sweet elementary school teacher. Maybe 4 or 5.

And the rest? Solidly unexceptional.

Now, let me make a few points. Were there bad teachers? Sure there were. But they were the exception, the minority, and for the most part, I was exposed to enough different teachers, we all were, that a few screw ups didn’t really affect the quality of our education. We as students could transcend them. It would have been nice to have been rid of them, but on the other hand, if they hadn’t been there, I don’t think it would have made much difference.

Simply put getting rid of all the bad teachers probably isn’t going to make all that big a difference. There likely aren’t all that many of them, no more than 15% to 20% say, and students are exposed to enough different teachers that any handicap they leave can likely be overcome. Purging the system produces at best incremental benefits rather than transformation.

What about getting better teachers? Well, like I said, there were four or five brilliant teachers and they made a real difference in my life. My education would have been so much better if there’d been eight or ten or a dozen brilliant teachers. Sure.

But on the other hand, my brother, with different skills and interests went through the same schooling and many of the same teachers that I did. Some of the ones I found brilliant made no impact on him, or he even disliked them. He found others to be gifted.

So what makes a teacher really really good for students is a highly subjective thing between the teacher and the student. It’s not like there’s some external board of education monitor who ranks the quality of a teacher. It’s the ability to reach out to students, and all teachers and students are different. It’s possible that even some of the horrific ones were able to make a big positive difference to some students.

But assume we could find some objective method to winkle out the diamonds. Sure. How do we find these diamonds and how do we keep them? More importantly, how do we keep them?

Human nature being what it is, people want two things: Money and security. There’s probably other ways to phrase it, but there you go. We like to talk about investments in stocks and bonds and land and crap like that. But skills are investments, time is an investment, a career is an investment.
A person has maybe 20 to 40 years of working life in them, and they’d like a decent standard of living and a decent retirement. The job, the career, is an investment in both the personal present and in the future, in living, in raising kids, in sickness and health, in retirement. People with options, with skill and talent, choose their careers as investments.

They want a good wage, they want to be able to make a nice living. Maybe there are other thing involved, they may not require top dollar. But on the other hand, they don’t want poverty. And they want some assurance of stability. You go to school invest four years in an education degree, you want some reasonable undertaking that you’re going to be able to recoup that investment, some likelihood that the investment over time will enable you to buy a home, raise a family, have vacations, etc. Sometimes people are prepared to trade a bit of one for a bit more of the other. More money less security is a good deal if you’re young and have options. Less money but more security is a better deal if you’re in an unstable environment. One or the other is not a good deal. Some combination is preferable. And the best is reasonably good provisions for both.

So what’s the idiots reform package - Teachers are overpaid. Uh huh. Okay, drop the compensation, or keep it stable, that will attract people like flies. Teachers have too much security, let’s make it easier to be rid of them and let’s abandon all hope of long term security. Yes, let’s make teachers vulnerable to termination from incompetent or arbitrary administrators, school board officials, angry parents, etc. Let’s strip collective bargaining and union protection rights, and have them stand like peons in the system.

Well, listen up. That sort of model isn’t going to attract the best and brightest. The best and brightest, being bestest and brightly usually have other options, or are motivated to seek out other options. And they pretty much will. Remember, the average lifespan of a teacher is five years. Most teachers leave the profession after five years. That’s a pretty high attrition rate, they’re already voting with their feet. Someone with options, they’ll go and look for a better investment.

So who does take that crap deal? The opposite of the best and brightest. The average, the dull, the plodding, the ones with fewer or no other options.

Way to go. Well meaning idiocy once again improves the American school system.

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