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In public schools, incentives matter

Last week (Wichita Public School District’s Path: Not Fruitful) I wrote about an article by Malcolm Gladwell. This article describes a method for evaluating and paying teachers. It’s not based on what public schools do now, which is to reward teachers solely on the basis of longevity and education credentials earned. That’s because we’ve found that these two measures don’t do anything to improve the effectiveness of teachers. “Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications — as much as they appear related to teaching prowess — turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.”

Instead, Gladwell finds that personal characteristics and behavior of teachers matter highly. These are discovered and evaluated through observation of the teacher in the classroom, as Gladwell reports.

Teachers, however, resist this type of evaluation. Teachers complain about arbitrary actions by administrators. They fear that they will be fired or disciplined in some way for speaking out or not going along with the system.

The problem that employees of government have is that without competition provided by markets and the profit and loss system, administrators can be arbitrary in their actions. There’s nothing to prevent them from being so.

In private enterprise, a firm must earn a profit. If it can’t earn profits, it will fail and go out of business. Private firms earn profits by pleasing customers. They provide products and services that customers value, and they provide them efficiently. To do this, they seek to employ the best people they can. If a firm hires less-qualified employees — say someone’s brother-in-law just because he’s a relative — they will probably not be as profitable. If activities like this go on long enough, the firm will probably go out of business, as it won’t be able to compete against firms with better-qualified employees.

The public schools, however, don’t have customers in the same way that private firms do. Most customers of a school district like USD 259, the Wichita public school district, don’t have an alternative.

Furthermore, public schools districts like USD 259 don’t have to earn a profit. Their revenue stream is guaranteed. Their customers are, too. So why should the managers of USD 259 care about the quality of their employees? They can hire anyone they want for any reason. And no matter how qualified and successful a teacher may be, that adds nothing to the “profitability” of USD 259. So what are the motives and incentives in place?

To learn more about the evaluation system mentioned in Gladwell’s article, see Neither Art nor Accident: A Conversation with Robert Pianta.

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