John Hood's Syndicated Weekly Column
RALEIGH – If North Carolina policymakers want to boost economic growth and job creation, they should fire some teachers.
Okay, now that I have your attention, let me underline the word some. Most public school teachers perform satisfactory work in a difficult job. Some of them do truly exemplary work or take on challenging subjects and student populations. They deserve greater recognition and higher pay.
And some teachers are lazy, poorly trained, ignorant of their subject matter, and ineffective at managing classrooms and teaching content. Most of them should be "encouraged" to find a different line of work.
Of course, I have just described the performance distribution of virtually every other profession, as well. There are brilliant, average, and God-awful doctors and lawyers. There are brilliant, average, and atrocious journalists, artists, and entertainers. There are brilliant, average, and incompetent accountants, engineers, and bankers.
But only in government-run schools – and, I suppose, in the increasingly government-run field of Wall Street banking – is performance routinely unrelated to one’s job security or compensation. Because of rigid tenure rules and longevity-based compensation schedules, most schools do not pay teachers according to demonstrable effectiveness, or fire teachers for demonstrable ineffectiveness.
That means that over time, the distribution of the education workforce has taken on a different shape than what you will find in professions that feature greater competition for excellent performers at the top and greater turnover of poor performers at the bottom. That’s one reason why attempting to improve education simply by pumping more money into the existing system has so often failed.
There is an emerging consensus among education researchers about the large extent to which excellent teaching effects student performance. As Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek put it in a recent article in the journal EducationNext: “The magnitude of variation in the quality of teachers, even within each school, is startling. Teachers who work in a given school, and therefore teach students with similar demographic characteristics, can be responsible for increases in math and reading levels that range from a low of one-half year to a high of one and a half years of learning each academic year.”
In recent years, Hanushek has devoted much of his scholarly work to studying the effects of educational attainment and teaching quality on workforce development, and thus on rates of economic growth. Not surprisingly, he has found significant correlations between education and growth – but not significant correlations between the level of government spending on education and either student performance or growth.
Hanushek’s research does not suggest that unless we replace every bad and mediocre teacher with an exemplary one, the education system is doomed to failure. That would be impossible. As previously noted, there are bell-shaped curves in virtually every profession. Truly exemplary performers will always be rare, regardless of the art or science in question. Rather than taking on the daunting task of trying to boost the number of exemplary teachers, it might make more sense to start by reducing the number of atrocious ones.
If North Carolina wants to improve the rate of return on our education dollars, for example, we should give principals the tools they need to manage their employees. That means giving them more control over compensation decisions and abolishing tenure.
In his article, Hanushek projected the potential benefits of such a policy by conducting a thought experiment. Suppose it were possible to replace the worst 7 percent of American teachers with those whose skills were simply equal to today’s average teacher. This seemingly small change would have revolutionary results, by raising the average student performance of America to that of Finland, the highest-scoring country in international tests.
“Closing the achievement gap with Finland would, according to historical experience, have astounding benefits, increasing the annual growth rate of the United States by 1 percent of GDP,” Hanushek wrote. “Accumulated over the lifetime of somebody born today, this improvement in achievement would amount to nothing less than an increase in total U.S. economic output of $112 trillion in present value.”
Even in government accounting, that’s real money.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.