Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Variable Value of Teachers

Hat Tip: Darren at Right on the Left Coast

Over at No. 2 Pencil, Kim has posted a couple of quotes by NEA president Reg Weaver, who was speaking to a crowd in Arkansas, arguing that charter schools and merit pay for teachers are "bad inputs" into a system focused solely on outputs, i.e. test scores.

Reg Weaver, the head of the nation's largest teachers' union, rails against the current focus on "output":
On Monday, Weaver balked at focusing on students’ standardized test results. “In many instances they want us all to focus on outputs,” he said. “An output is nothing more than a test score, and as long as they get us focused on a test score, then they cause the public and many legislators not to deal with the inputs.”

“Inputs,” he said include not only class size and adequate funding but qualified and certified teachers, safe and orderly schools and state-of-the-art technology.

Is the public really not interested in inputs? Or have they had it with inputs, like state-of-the-art technology and fancy teaching programs, that might be pricey but haven't been shown to be related to those important outputs? I don't think any parent would not want a school to be more safe and orderly, but they might balk at laptops for all if the school still doesn't teach kids how to read.

This series of comments and the whole question of inputs versus outputs fails to grasp what is most important when you are talking about education, the actual skill of the teacher.

Robert Heinlein wrote a great analogy in his book Starship Troopers (the book is 20 times better than the movie), about whether value was a constant or relative concept, which seems applicable here. Essentially, the argument is this. When making an apple pie, you have a series of inputs, apples, flour, sugar, spices, and a few other things. A great chef can take these ingredients and create something truly spectacular, a magnificent apple pie, with a value much better than the sum of its parts. Conversely, a poor chef can take these same inputs and without skill in the process of making an apple pie, create an inedible mess, with a comparative value far below the value of the individual parts.

If one measure the value of the chef's effort merely the time and sweat they put into making the apple pie, it is entirely possible that the poor tasting apple pie would be equal in value to the great tasting apple pie, something we know is not true.

Teaching children, while very different from making apple pies, can be similarly viewed.

A safe, organized school, the child, classroom technology, a demanding curriculum and even parental involvement are all inputs into a system called education. As with the chef/apple pie example, a skilled and knowledgeable classroom teacher can take all of the inputs, and using her skills, knowledge, experience and training, produce something truly magical--a well educated child, ready for college, work, or whatever. By the same token, a poor teacher, lacking skills, knowledge or experience, will certainly not produce as well an educated child.

Not a big surprise, right? But the current system of pay espoused by the NEA and AFT is based upon a notion that all teachers have the same value as an agent of change, based solely on the time they spend on educating our children, when clearly, intuitively, we know they do not. As we saw from the apple example, some chefs and teachers, by virture of passion, superior training and experience lend more to the process than a chef/teacher lacking in those qualities. But a system of pay that favors time over skill will always treat the good teachers the same as bad teachers.

If we were to take the apple pie analogy a step furhter, let us place the good apple pie and the bad apple pie in competition with each other. Under the NEA model of economics, these pies would be of equal value. After all, the inputs were the same and because the time and effort of the chefs are considered equal inputs, the result is always the same in terms of value. But clearly, this system flies in the face of logic. We can tell, even by the subjective nature of one's taste in deserts, that one pie is better than the other.

Such a concept easily moves into the education world. We know for a fact that some teachers are better than others. In the schools, a good teacher is a education multiplier. She can take the same inputs and the outputs will be superior. A bad teacher actually reduces the value of the inputs.

For those who have a background in economics, you can see where the NEA falls on the economic spectrum. The NEA generally espouses a socialist system of pay, in which teachers with the same number of years of experience get paid the same amount--no matter their actual skill, read value, in their trade. Thus a teacher is a merely another input into the system (Weaver even says so), but in reality, the teacher is the functional aspect of the system, not an input.

A teacher is not a constant value input into the education system any more than a chef is a constant value input into an apple pie. The value of a teacher is a relative variable and until we can find a way to increase the relative skill of all teachers, the variable value will continue to fluctuate wildly. The reason why incentive and merit pay attract so many adherents is that such a scale accounts for the variable value and worth of teachers.

This is the trouble with education reform, we don't necessarily know where to start, but focusing on only one end of the educational process is short-sighted at best, and disasterous at the worst. Do inputs matter, as Weaver argues? Yes, but they are not an absolute value and we need to be more congnizant of the relative value we place on teachers. We should be rewarding those who produce better outcomes with incentives to continue that performance.

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