Out with the bad, in with the good

A while back Obama jumped on the fire-bad-teachers bandwagon:

“You’ve got to have radical change, and radical change is something that’s in the interest of students,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to identify teachers who are doing well. … And, ultimately, if some teachers aren’t doing a good job, they’ve got to go.”


This is all well and good, but some of what I’ve read about this idea seems naively linear. Bad teachers gone >> students learn more? Just contemplating the stocks and flows gives me pause. If we accelerate the outflow of bad teachers, what happens to the stock of teachers? Does it go down, causing class sizes to go up, inadvertently making things tougher on the remaining good teachers, who might then also leave? If not, where do we get the inflow of replacements, and what makes them any better? Is there an infinite source of potential good teachers out there, waiting to be exploited, or do we have to do something to create it?

Certainly there are some good reasons to think that getting rid of bad teachers is part of the solution. Anecdotal evidence of exceedingly low turnover rates in some districts suggests an opportunity. More importantly, there are positive feedbacks around quality. Good teachers make good colleagues, so a dolt-free school should be able to attract more good teachers. Good teaching reduces inspires, reducing behavior issues, so schools can focus resources on teaching, not discipline.

But at the end of the day, retention of good teachers has to be part of the picture as well. That means caring for them appropriately: giving them the flexibility to develop their own teaching style, not making evaluation obtrusive, providing slack time for development and continuing education, and – god forbid – paying them well. Many other education initiatives run counter to this purpose. For example:

Obama also said “nothing’s more important” than education, and he said if students stayed in class for one more summer month every year, they would retain more information. “I think we should have longer school years,” he said.

This is classic “get a bigger hammer” thinking. Is one more month of school that isn’t working going to help? Are underpaid teachers going to provide 10% more hours on a volunteer basis, or do we cut their effective pay to implement this? Could the resources instead be used to reduce class sizes 10%, or raise salaries 10% to attract better teachers? Again, there may be a kernel of wisdom here, but it’s hard to separate it from its systemic context.

My half-baked view is that it’s unreasonable to expect a revolution in education without providing more resources. That money isn’t going to come from poor school districts. The physics of the distribution of wealth suggests that it would have to come from the rich. At times, the rich have been willing to ante up for education, in recognition that wealth is unsustainable without civil society. But currently we seem to be in a social Darwinian phase, in which wealth is exclusively personal (in stark contrast to the view of achievement in science). So, perhaps the first step would be to make the problem salient: internalize the costs of uncivil society. Let’s pay for policing and the prison system with a luxury tax on McMansions, sports cars, yachts, first class air travel, space tourism, fine art, vintage wine and Viagra. Then we can tackle the really hard stuff, like anti-intellectual culture (since lotteries, our tax on ignorance, don’t seem to be depressing the supply).