Sunday, January 2, 2011

From valuing teachers to firing the bad ones

In an excellent column in today's New York Times, Greg Mankiw says:
Educational reform, therefore, should be a high priority. To be sure, this is easier said than done. But research suggests that one key is getting rid of bad teachers. In a recent study, the economist Eric Hanushek says that “replacing the bottom 5 to 8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings.”
Because the title of the study is "The Economic Value of Higher Teaching Quality," I wondered if that was the policy Hanushek meant to hit headlines. Maybe he meant this sentence to merely provide context for his estimates, rather than be a full-blown policy recommendation. I had to know, so I found his paper and read what he had to say.

Mankiw's phrasing is right. Hanushek does recommend firing the underperforming teachers, but he also has two other interesting policy recommendations. The first is paying teachers for better performance (but giving meaningful incentives, doing it better) and here's the author on the second:
But there are also other policies that are suggested by the economic aspects of teacher quality. Specifically, it is important to consider the significant interaction between teacher effectiveness and class size – since all of the impacts on individuals are magnified across entire classrooms. A simple conclusion from the estimates is that, even without eliminating any teachers, the most effective teachers should be assigned larger classes and the least effective should be assigned smaller classes. In that way, the aggregate impact of less effective teachers is lessened, and the more effective teachers are better utilized. Of course, any direct impacts of altered class size would be relevant, but the existing research makes it difficult to include that in any systematic manner. Further, the more effective teachers might react badly to having larger classes, which in turn require more work. Indeed anecdotal evidence suggests that schools may try to do the opposite. If pay is completely constrained, schools may reward the better teachers by giving them smaller classes. These concerns could be eliminated if teachers are paid a portion of their economic returns.
I only skimmed the paper, but it appears to be a thorough assessment of educational policy. It is balanced and it convinced me that a serious discussion of how to reward teacher quality is needed. What better way to start that discussion than to get some attention grabbing headlines?

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