A nice, smart, thoughtful reflection on some not-very-conscious presuppositions that should not be presuppositions…

James Kwak: Free Market Reflexes:

I’ve been reading a lot about education recently, for reasons that are not worth going into here. I don’t know that much about the area, so I’ve been reading some background stuff and review articles, including a Hamilton Project white paper by Michael Greenstone, Adam Looney, and Paige Shevlin. It’s pretty mainstream, self-professed “third way” stuff, with a heavy dose of measurement and performance evaluation…. There are a fairly strong tilt toward market mechanisms and some idealistic naivete about practical problems…. The white paper, however, betrays a certain conceptual bias that I find disturbing, even in topical areas where it seems otherwise reasonable.

Here’s one example, in the context of teacher effectiveness:

According to one estimate, if average effectiveness could be raised enough to put American students on par with those from the highest-performing countries it could be worth as much as $100 trillion in national productivity benefits over the next eighty years (Hanushek 2010). The bottom line from this recent body of research is that potential benefits from increasing teacher quality are enormous. Realizing the gains from effective teachers requires attracting more qualified people into the profession and then identifying and retaining those who are most effective.

I have no problem with the premise: better teachers improve student outcomes, which is worth a lot of money. But do you see what’s going on? To get better teachers, the authors say, requires ”attracting more qualified people” and then “identifying and retaining” the most effective ones. That just doesn’t follow. And anyone who’s worked in an actual company should realize that…. One way to get better workers is to hire more effective people and to fire less effective people. But the other way… is to make your current workforce more effective… by figuring out what attributes or processes make people more effective… by training people and implementing processes…. The idea that the only way to improve teacher effectiveness (remember, they said “requires”) is to increase quality at the front end and link retention to quality on the back end is the kind of illogical, impractical inference you draw if you have a certain type of attitude toward workers: the attitude that there’s only one abstract attribute that matters (quality) and that it’s intrinsic and unchanging….

To a certain degree, this is the banking/consulting view of the world. Investment banks and consulting firms largely hire (at least for some positions) based on abstract quality measures that have relatively little to do with the skills you actually use… and then… weed out low performers. But even they… place a large emphasis on on-the-job training….

This attitude is further reflected in this passage:

But the relevant question is whether the combination of relatively low salaries and relatively high deferred benefits is the right formula to attract talented young people with many career opportunities to teaching, and to retain the most effective teachers throughout their career….. The bottom line, however, is that the teaching profession can have difficulty attracting the most talented people when relative salaries are in decline.

Again, I agree with the basic point: we should pay teachers more. But it’s this… abstract conception of talent that bothers me. I’m arguably the kind of abstractly “talented” person the authors are thinking of… fancy degrees… McKinsey… did well in business… wrote a bestseller. But I would have made a lousy K-12 teacher… my weaknesses would be much more of a problem in primary or secondary school…