The Neo-Liberal Misunderstanding of the Teaching Workforce

James Kwak makes a very good point about teachers and ‘teacher effectiveness’ (boldface mine):

But do you see what’s going on? To get better teachers, the authors say, requires ”attracting more qualified people” and then “identifying and retaining” the most effective ones.

That just doesn’t follow. And anyone who’s worked in an actual company should realize that. Yes, it’s always better to have better workers. One way to get better workers is to hire more effective people and to fire less effective people. But the other way—which, in most industries, is by far more important—is to make your current workforce more effective. You do that in part by figuring out what attributes or processes make people more effective, and in part by training people and implementing processes in ways that improve productivity.

The idea that the only way to improve teacher effectiveness (remember, they said “requires”) is to increase quality at the front end and link retention to quality on the back end is the kind of illogical, impractical inference you draw if you have a certain type of attitude toward workers: the attitude that there’s only one abstract attribute that matters (quality) and that it’s intrinsic and unchanging. What’s surprising is that this is a non-obvious kind of fallacy: again, anyone who has run a business realizes that what matters more is what you do with the workforce you have.

To a certain degree, this is the banking/consulting view of the world. Investment banks and consulting firms largely hire (at least for some positions) based on abstract quality measures that have relatively little to do with the skills you actually use in banking and consulting, and then use their review processes to weed out low performers….

I’m arguably the kind of abstractly “talented” person the authors are thinking of. I have fancy degrees, and got a job at McKinsey, and did well in business, and wrote a bestseller. But I would have made a lousy K-12 teacher. I think I’m a decent law school teacher,* but that’s because my strengths are useful in a classroom with highly educated, highly motivated students, and my weaknesses would be much more of a problem in primary or secondary school….

But I also suspect that there’s a feeling, maybe not among these authors, but among the billionaires who like investing in education, of “if only more people like us became teachers”…

If they didn’t explode from frustration first, I suspect most wealthy people would be eaten alive by a classroom of fourteen year-olds.

I would add one other thing: it represents a culture clash between the banking/consulting world and the public service view. There is no ‘eat what you kill’ environment in a public (or private) school: teachers don’t work on commission. No one goes into teaching to make a ton of money. Sure, who doesn’t want a good salary? And I’m sure, just as in any organization, there are those just phoning it in. But the ‘pedal faster’ culture doesn’t work, especially when all it means is you get to keep your job as a reward. Worse, when a culture of evaluation hurts your ability to teach (and makes it less enjoyable), we end up losing good teachers.

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2 Responses to The Neo-Liberal Misunderstanding of the Teaching Workforce

  1. Min says:

    Not do disagree with Kwak’s point, but for the sake of argument let us agree with the other point of view. “To get better teachers, the authors say, requires ”attracting more qualified people” and then “identifying and retaining” the most effective ones.”

    To do that, you must pay to attract and retain such talent. OC, the people who want to do that want to get good education on the cheap.

  2. “the attitude that there’s only one abstract attribute that matters (quality) and that it’s intrinsic and unchanging”

    Well that’s the way of all industries now, isn’t it?
    People as inanimate objects. Mere human capital. They work for low wages because that’s all they’re worth, etc. etc.
    I even read an article in Psychology magazine about stress & psychological problems with affluent teens which mentioned their tendency to view themselves as essentially marketable objects, which are expected to participate in activities that will look good on a resume.

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