Teacher Choice Gone Wild

Thought experiment:

1. Let’s say we ranked 100 biology teachers in order of effectiveness. (Punt for a moment on how we decide the rankings).

2. You’re the principal. You can hire the #40 teacher and the #60 teacher – each will teach 4 classes per day of 20 kids each. Or you can hire the #10 teacher who will teach 5 classes per day of 32 kids each. Which do you choose?

3. Assuming you’re not brain dead, you chose the latter. This begs the question: why can’t the best teachers be involved in choosing their class size and total student load?

Doctors often choose their patient loads: they may be happier spending more time per patient, even if they receive less compensation. Same with lawyers.

But not teachers.

I’m pretty sure MATCH School in Boston had the #1 biology teacher in all the land for the last 3 years. But Glenn and his wife had a baby, moved to NYC to be closer to family, now signed on with NYC Center for Charter School Excellence, a great new outfit.

What if we could have said – Glenn, if you double your teaching load and we’ll double your salary? Would he have stayed?

[Okay, logistically we couldn’t have done that – we don’t have enough kids taking biology, and our classrooms physically aren’t big enough to hold more than 30 kids, even if the kids held their breath all period long. ]

But what if each big high school could tag its Jaime Escalante type of teacher as a “Franchise Player” like they do in the NFL? He/she could earn twice the salary for teaching twice the kids; 50% more to teach 50% more kids; or keep things status quo. Heck, we see college professors with class sizes of 100 and 200 and 300. The point is that a great teacher with 100 kids is better than the typical teacher with 25 or 20 or 15.

So now we have Jaime Escalante teaching a double load if he wants to: win-win for him and for the kids, lose-lose for the mediocre teacher he just displaced and the union. Again, in this thought experiment, what’s the logical next step? Escalante does the same things a doctor would do: reinvests some of his salary gains in getting lower-cost help…a nurse practioner for the doc, a teaching assistant for the teacher. He also gets some cleaning help at home.

The naysayers will whine that Jaime’s teaching quality will decline blah blah blah. Of course. If Jaime was #1 with 100 kids he’d probably slip to #10 with 200 kids. But not all the way down to #50.

Econ majors unite: the real question is how do we maximize “total utility?” Do kids learn more with Jaime at #10 with 200 kids, or do the same 200 kids do better when half are with Jaime at #1 and half with Joe Average at #50?

Heck, another way to slice this is to forget about money. Let’s just ask: a typical high school history teacher might repeat the exact same lecture to 30 kids, 4 times a day, one hour per class.

What if she could choose to teach 60 kids in lecture format, two times per day? That would leave her with 2 additional hours per day. She could require struggling kids to come to her for extra help. She could nail all the kids who weren’t paying attention and have them join her for 2-hour-per-night detentions until they understood the basic rules of lecture hall.

Or what if she had a really tough period 3 class of 30 kids, and instead was willing to teach an extra period each day in exchange for dividing that one “tough” class into two groups of 15?

Lots of logistical obstacles, Evil Empire obstacles, etc. But in a galaxy far, far away, one can imagine a system that does not just provide for student choice, but a parallel system of true teacher choice, with enormous variation in potential earnings and daily schedule, so long as teachers as measured for their ability to generate value-add gains in student achievement.

Thoughts? Goldstein2003@aol.com

– Guest blogger GGW

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