Education as Business
Malcolm Gladwell — the freaky-haired author of smart, nonfiction bestsellers — tackles the challenge of identifying good teachers. (Don’t be fooled by the first part of the article, where Gladwell focuses on football and quarterbacks; it’s only a set up for the rest of the article.)
In examining the good-teacher question, Gladwell offers this:
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.
Yet more proof that, if we want good schools, we must have good teachers. And to have good teachers, we must not only institute tough but fair teacher-performance standards, we must handsomely pay those who “make the grade.”
Teachers’ unions are often blamed for resisting efforts to link teacher pay to performance. That criticism may or may not be entirely fair. I’m not qualified to judge. What I am qualified to judge is what happens in highly competitive business settings, where I’ve worked and/or consulted for nearly 20 years. In these settings, the most successful companies do the best (and often most brutal) job of finding, training, promoting, and rewarding the best managers. While many will resist the notion, I tend to agree with the (indirect) suggestion in Gladwell’s article that we start treating schools like businesses and teachers like managers — including comparable pay for the best of the best.