Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”     Plato

September 12, 2012

Accountability, responsibility, risk, metrics, unions, markets… What about education?

by Chris

As has been discussed here recently, Chicago teachers are striking, even though they already make an average salary nearly double that of the average Chicago family, and are being offered a 16% raise over four years.

I dunno about you, but as a free market partcipant in our economy today, that sounds like a pretty good deal.

Well, first thing is they’re asking for a 30% raise over four years… but that’s really just a negotiating point, and one they don’t expect to get. If it were just about the raise, I’d guess they’d take the 16%.

It’s not.

It’s not really about the money; it’s that the teachers new contract attempts, in even the tiniest way, to add some accountability and performance measures to the teachers contracts.

… and the teachers unions can’t give even a millimeter on this issue. Not one millimeter, not ever. Because if they do, their rigid seniority system collapses, and they lose power.

Here’s a fun fact: a lot of younger teachers don’t mind the idea of performance standards, and they actually LIKE the idea of merit pay, performance bonueses etc… It’s not a foreign idea for them, because all their friends who live in the real world market economy have that sort of thing.

Recently, in Idaho, the commissioner of education managed to get teacher tenure eliminated, and performance based bonuses (note, not performance based salaries or hiring or firing, just bonuses) passed as commission regulations, and then when they were challenged in lawsuits, via statute approved by public referendum.

In response, the teachers unions sponsored an unsuccessful attempt to have the commissioner (who is now serving as one of the two lead advisors on education to the Romney campaign) recalled. So unsuccessful in fact the numbers indicate basically no-one voted for the recall but teachers and their immediate families.

This year, they managed to get enough signatures together to get a repeal effort on the merit pay rules on the ballot as a referendum; polling on which indicates it will fail miserably. Meanwhile, the teachers unions are both suing to prevent the policies from being implemented AND SIMULTANEOUSLY suing to force the department of education to distribute the bonus money, but on a seniority basis.

Trying to have their cake and eat it too.

I don’t understand how much more clear it could be that this has nothing to do with the wellbeing of our children, or about good teachers; it’s about protecting union rules, and union rule…

BUT, there are certainly good, well meaning people, who really do believe that we shouldn’t put performance standards on teachers… That it’s somehow “unfair” or impossible, or just not a good idea etc…

“You can’t hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students, there’s too much they can’t control. Their home lives, their parents, poverty… Good teachers could be penalized simply for having bad students). It’s not fair”

Common refrain from teachers, and from those who support their position in this… After all you wouldn’t want to be evaluated on someone elses efforts and abilities right?

Well… I am. Most likely you are too.

In the free market, we are held accountable for other people performance and decisions etc… all the time.

As an individual contributor, my performance is measured not only by my own efforts, abilities, and success; but that of my group, my manager, and my company as a whole.

As a manager, I am held entirely accountable for someone elses performance. I have tools to motivate them, help them perform better etc… But still, I have to deal with the performance that other people give me. I have to have the skill to use that performance in the best possible way.

“But you can fire your low performing employees”.

Really?

Ever worked in corporate America? Or had a real job of any kind?

So long as my employees meet bare minimum standards, and don’t actually commit a crime (or violate major HR policies), I’m not getting rid of my low performers. It’s up to me, to make them meet the standards I need for my group to be successful.

In sales, you are held accountable for other people actions, decisions, and performance as well. You don’t get to control your customers decisions, and how much they buy from you is dependent more on their performance than yours.

Yes, a skilled salesperson with a good support team will sell more than an unskilled one; and that’s as it should be… but its still entirely dependent on someone elses performance and decisions. A good sales guy can’t get a customer who doesn’t have the money for the product, to buy the product… or at least not more than once.

Good sales managers understand this. They set account and territory sales expectations based on a reasonable evaluation of the possible performance of those accounts. If they don’t then they won’t get any decent sales people to work for them, and they’ll constantly churn sales people making these accounts and territories perform even worse.

What matters in evaluating your ability as a salesperson isn’t your absolute sales, it’s your performance in comparison to other sales people with a similar situation. IF you perform well, then good managers will put you on difficult accounts that have the potential to perform better, and reward you if you make them perform up to potential.

At least if you have a decent management team.

At that point you’re at the mercy of having a good boss, who understands that relative performance is a better judge of your capability than absolute performance…

Just like teachers need to be.

Holding teachers accountable, doesn’t mean that all teachers should be held to arbitrary and universal standards. Teachers that teach all “remedial” students can’t be held to the same standard of performance as those who teach all honors students…

And NO-ONE IS SUGGESTING ANYTHING LIKE THAT.

Or at least no-one serious, with credibility, who should be listened to.

Calling for “standardized testing and accountability” isn’t calling for teachers to make poor students perform at the level of honors students. It’s calling for teachers of all levels of students to perform no worse than average against other teachers of similar levels of students; and to measure improvement in those students over time, compared to other teachers of the same level of students.

How is that unreasonable?

Only those with the irrational… even stupid… belief that teaching is some kind of special “calling” performed only by special people who must be protected from the market forces that the rest of us must cope with; could possibly justify that sort of thinking, with any kind of intellectual honesty.

They generally apply the same sort of thinking to artists, who must be protected from the horrible taste of the masses etc…

Yeah… If we did that, then teachers would be at the mercy of having competent managers, who knew how to evaluate performance.

Just like the rest of us.

In fact… The only time I ever see a serious proposal that teachers should be evaluated by absolute and arbitrary standards… It’s coming from lefties or teachers; because they are trying to “avoid bias” or “avoid subjectivity” etc… etc… etc…

Holding teachers accountable also means holding administrators and school systems accountable. It means making them participate in the market that the rest of us are forced to.

If you have a poorly managed school, good teachers won’t go there.

IF good teachers won’t go there, then good students won’t go there… IF they’re given the option that is…

Oh… wait a second… Hey… that might just be…

And of course, if we allowed that, then the unions would lose…

Oh… hey, that might just be…

Ya think maybe…

Teaching is a job, just like any other. It’s a job that has more benefits than most. These days, it’s even a job that pays more than most. It’s a job that has a lot more security than most. It’s a job that has more garbage and BS and heartbreak than most. It’s a job that’s harder than most. It’s a job that’s a lot more important than most…

Great teachers can do more to help children be successful than anything other than great parents…

But it’s still a job.

Teachers aren’t superheroes, they aren’t artists, they are workers… just like the rest of us.

Teachers don’t need to be protected from the real world, they need to be a part of it, and accountable to it… just like the rest of us.

Maybe if they were, there would be a lot more good teachers, and a lot less bad ones.

Maybe if they our were, our children would be a lot better off.

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6 Comments

  1. My main issue with teacher performance is that the primary method used to evaluate the teachers will (most likely) be by some sort of standardized test scores. Now, I’m a Ph.D student in mathematics, and I can tell you that our current standardized tests do very little to reflect proper, “good” teaching of math. In fact, in my opinion, if a teacher actually taught mathematics in the right way, their students would probably fail the standardized tests we give today (because they wouldn’t waste time on trivial things like “rationalize the denominator” or “write 11/7 as a mixed number”). Of course the teacher probably did a great job of actually getting students to learn some mathematics, but would be considered a “bad teacher” because of a flawed testing system. I’m not opposed to competition in education, but first we need to take a long, serious look at the way we evaluate teachers.

    Comment by Ryan — September 12, 2012 @ 6:01 pm
  2. Chris,

    Excellent post. Agreed that employee performance is most *definitely* something that can be evaluated (if not always easily “measured”), and that it’s often quite relative and subjective. It comes down to doing the best you can with what you have, and sometimes as you point out, “what you have” is often far outside your control…

    I understand why teachers might be opposed to standardized tests to measure their performance. The problem is that they’re also opposed to every other method to measure their performance…

    Ryan,

    Again, there’s a much simpler solution — school choice. If parents have the ability to choose where to send their kids, you create a market in education. When you create a market, there’s an incentive for schools to figure out how to attract better teachers and measure their performance.

    I know people on “the left” tend to be very wary of the response that we should just let the market sort it out, but it works…

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — September 12, 2012 @ 10:17 pm
  3. Brad,

    Let me first say that I completely agree with you that the best way to solve the problem I posed would be to let the free market handle it (I feel this would also improve the quality of curriculum and teaching as well; government bureaucrats have no idea what should and shouldn’t be taught in math courses!). Unfortunately, as you know, we libertarians often have viewpoints that differ greatly from those of mainstream America, and try as I might, I just can’t foresee a scenario where we actually have true school choice. I was envisioning the more likely scenario where we keep largely the same public school system and add in some form of teacher evaluation. I just wanted to point out that, in this case, we really need to be careful how we evaluate teachers, since it’s a highly non-trivial problem.

    Comment by Ryan — September 12, 2012 @ 11:29 pm
  4. Yeah, what Chris said :)

    Comment by Stephen Littau — September 13, 2012 @ 10:41 am
  5. Seriously though, Chris: great job on this post. There’s nothing here I can really take issue with.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — September 13, 2012 @ 10:44 am
  6. [...] This story is interesting. In Chicago, public school teachers are striking. They are demanding a ridiculously high pay increase, 30% over 4 years. They object to a new system for “giving teachers more accountability”. [...]

    Pingback by Chicago Teachers’ Strike | realfreemarket.org — September 19, 2012 @ 8:00 am

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