Not a Financial Crisis

3 October 2010

The self-styled SD Planning Committee, formed to fight cuts to state funding of education, health care, and social services, has posted flyers that declare

We face not a financial crisis, but a crisis of priorities,

I don't know why they end that with a comma, as it's followed by a sentence in which it cannot participate. In any case, it's a somewhat puffed-up way of saying that

There's plenty of money for the budget; it's just not being spent well.

Interesting concept, there, that there could be plenty of money in a budget, but that the money is not being well spent. They just might try applying that same concept to just those portions of the budget that are allocated to education, to health care, and to social services. Perhaps, even after cuts, there would be plenty of money, if only it were spent well. And perhaps even if funding to these programmes were increased to the greatest possible levels, it would be spent badly.

Okay, so there's no perhaps to it; that's just how it would be.

On the other hand, I have to grimace when I hear or read of linking teacher pay to performance.

I understand the desire to pay teachers based upon the quality of their teaching. And, outside of the teachers' unions, almost everyone understands that it's not a good thing to link teacher pay primarily (let alone directly) to years of service. But I'm pretty sure that real-world attempts to link teacher pay to ostensible measures of performance are going to increase

  • disincentives for teachers to accept jobs working with less able students,
  • incentives for teachers to teach to the tests by which student achievement is purportedly measured,
  • student time tied-up in taking those d_mn'd tests, which themselves teach nothing to students beyond test-taking skills.

A profoundly different model of education is needed to get something that will work.

A part of that model would be to use markets to price teaching, recognizing (amongst other things) that different teaching contexts correspond to different markets.

Unfortunately, another part of that model is for parents to accept a significantly greater degree of responsibility for ensuring that their children are properly educated. The vast majority of parents seem willing to pass the buck to state-funded schools, regardless of their performance. It isn't sufficient to say Hey, I sent my kid to school! The school dropped the ball, not me!

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8 Responses to Not a Financial Crisis

  • Mykal Banta says:

    Daniel: Your outline of what might happen in the real world should teacher pay be linked to performance has happened already in the real world of Florida with the reign of the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). Teachers won't take jobs in poorly performing schools (or leave those schools at the first opportunity); and kids are being taught (or at least memorizing) exactly what is on the test and, more importantly, strategies on test taking. I had a girlfriend that taught high school art, and she was instructed to work math and history into her art lessons.

    Kids educated in Florida will enter the work force primed for a career in talking the FCAT.

    Yet, still the concept remains very popular. I suppose because it appeals to "common sense." The problem with common sense is that it is common.

  • Gaal Yahas says:

    Perhaps even if responsibility accepted by parents were increased to the greatest possible levels, it would be employed badly.

    Just kidding/playing devil's advocate; I do actually believe schools as cheap babysitting agencies are an awful thing, and that the "modern family" could and should do more.

    How do you measure the quality of a teacher? I've had only a handful of good ones. They weren't particularly popular. One of the teachers I thought worst was actually admired by a friend who went to the same school (in a different year).

    • Daniel says:

      I've personally encountered a case where parents have taken a great deal of responsibility, and done so badly, and I hear or read of many others nth hand (n ≥ 2).

      But whereäs a greater parental sense of responsibility, while certainly not sufficient, is something at least like a necessity, a sound educational system could be run with less money than would be allocated to the state-funded system of California even after proposed cuts.

      If I could answer the question of how to measure the quality of a teacher, then I'd be less hostile to proposals for state technocrats to do such a thing (though I'd still have strong objections). I could list some desirable features (such as the ability to recognize how students are or would be approaching material), but the relevant knowledge for evaluating teachers is decentralized.

      As to different people (presumably each of sound mind) having profoundly different impressions of a given teacher, surely sometimes the teacher is just inconstant, doing a good job in some intervals and a bad job in others; but I think that it's also important to remember that the difference between a crop and a weed is where each is growing. For example, some teachers are really good for students of one caliber, but may be terrible in meeting the needs of others.

      • Gaal Yahas says:

        I agree with everything you're saying. I'd just point out that "just inconstant" is a very common state of affairs, and teaching for one level also. The only teachers I remember noticing who were any good at speaking to different levels of students at the same time were in University (though of course it's possible it's only then that I started noticing things like that).

        Anyway in education I think much of the challenge is not to explain how certain things (like inconstant teachers) come to be, it's to design changes to a very large system with imperfections everywhere to embetter itself.

  • I understand your point concerning the possible hazard in linking pay to performance with teachers, but - and I say this broadly to avoid hours of nitpicky argument because I agree with the rest of what you state - think of teachers in terms of doctors, or better, surgeons. Do the best doctors gravitate toward easy and ostensibly more successful cures in order to receive higher pay?

    With teachers, I think there is a way to accomplish rewarding success, it's simply a matter of assigning weight to their tasks.

    • Daniel says:

      Our present system does not typically pay doctors based upon technocratic attempts to measure performance. In all systems, doctors typically migrate (if allowed to do so) to where they feel most rewarded; in systems where rewards are determined by bureaucrats, the results have been perverse.

      (In his comment, Mykal reports that the sort of teacher migration that I predict is discernibly happening in Florida.)

      You beg the entire question when you write it's simply a matter of assignings wieght to their tasks (underscore mine). That's exactly a case of saying that getting socialism to work is simply a matter of assigning prices to goods and services. That may be simply it, but it's no simple task; as a practical matter, it's not even a possible task for an administrated system.

      As I said to Gaal, the relevant knowledge for evaluating teachers is decentralized; that's a big part of why I earlier wrote that part of a real solution would be to use markets to price teaching, recognizing (amongst other things) that different teaching contexts correspond to different markets.

      • You're correct, it is a way to get socialism to work. After all, State schools are a perfect example of socialism. Obviously, if all schooling is privatized, then the markets would certainly fix a lot of it. I'm not so sure things are going to lean that way anytime soon. And, taking my analogy about the medical world under consideration, and tossing in the swing toward socialized medicine, as simplistic as my solution is, it is only as simple-headed as socialism preaches itself to be.

        I am obviously not a socialist.

        • Daniel says:

          I didn't say that it's a way to get socialism to work, because it isn't a way to get socialism to work. Most non-socialist, like most socialists, don't understand the problem of economic calculation. Your assertion that it's simply a matter of assignings wieght to their tasks simply assumed that problem away.

          I also didn't toss in the swing to socialized medicine; there was nothing extraneous in my directing attention to systems in which doctors are rewarded based upon weights assigned by bureaucrats. (And we don't have to confine ourselves to systems generally recognized as socialized in order to find systems where bureaucracies, rather than markets, assign weights; we can look at how doctors behave in institutions such as HMOs.) You proposed to use the behavior of doctors as an indication of how teachers would behave given proposed reforms; if one is going to do that, one should look, if possible, at how doctors behave under regimes analogous to those proposed for teachers. The point was exactly to look at how doctors behave in such systems, not to draw attention to wider failures.

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