20 August 2010

Education on the pareto principle

Indeed, one recent study (see here for another explanation) found that the optimal system--given our current knowledge and the importance of teacher effects--is to hire a lot of teachers on probation and then fire 80% after two years, yes 80%.

One way to look at that would be to say that about 20% of all teachers (would, if not already) produce about 80% of our total educational value. (if not more)

There are multiple appropriate responses to this. One is that we lack effective measurement tools. Test scores are more like a proxy for what we would seem to want to measure or achieve with education, and they are often a terrible version of shorthand at best. Another is that test scores assume a particular educational track, one which would generally terminate in 4 year colleges, and a track which is probably inappropriate or ineffective for some students, particular those already "ruined" by ineffective teaching systems and the infrastructures surrounding their educational development.

And by far one of the bigger problems is that it's not always clear why or how someone is an effective teacher (though it is generally clear that they are, at least relative to the bottom of the spectrum). We may not be able to duplicate it by having less effective teachers (those actually interested and concerned teachers, not the bad seeds that end up in a rubber room policy that so offends people on the behavior of teachers' unions) copy or learn from them best practices, so to speak. Or certainly to accommodate the demands of parents who want their kids in the better teachers class.

I would suggest two policy approaches that make sense (to me).
1) End dependency on (state) licensing. Expanding the pool of possible educators appears to be one of the best ways to assure we have enough quality educators doing the actual work. Licensing should produce, at best, a price premium for those who pursue it rather than become a requirement for entry.
2) Increase market flexibility both for curriculum and choice of schools (and by extension, teachers and professors). The expectation here is that the market would come up with appropriate measures for evaluation of both prospective teachers and the ones already doing it, and begin the hard work of sorting through the chaff that we do not and should not want maintained in classrooms. That is a cost we cannot bear any longer. It would also allow us more ability to do things like the following:
a) remove the political objections to things like science or history curriculum being mandated by local or state school boards. Nutcases would be more free to educate their children without imposing restrictions on how others must be, and vice versa. Depoliticizing education seems like a good and powerful outcome.
b) increase the ability of students, those who might otherwise fall behind or become disinterested in mostly useless college preparatory classes to study more practical or elective interests. Most any mathematics class beyond algebra I is almost useless in almost all jobs for example and is only useful for producing college degrees or for people who are electing to study fields where such things are useful or out of personal interest.

I'd also prefer abolishing grade levels and letting students proceed at their own pace in the things they excel or do not excel in. But if we cannot get school choice as a market solution into the equation or discussion as a response to flailing teachers (protected, as they should be by a political entity, it should not take 20 years to fire lazy and incompetent idiots who have no business in a classroom), then I'm really skeptical that we're getting the students themselves any leverage.
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