A Good Question

One reason Jay Mathews is such a treasure on the education scene is that he’s willing to ask hard questions. In today’s Washington Post he lets fly the lead balloon about whether or not it makes better sense to invest more in teachers than invest in more teachers. It’s a good question because while smaller classes are better all else equal, all else is rarely equal and variables like teacher effectiveness matter more. (While parents often say they prefer small classes, watch how at the beginning of the school year they’re willing to take a slightly larger class with the teacher that everyone in the community knows is absolutely terrific, they get this, too.)

The problem is, unless it’s coupled with more effective evaluation and more sensitivity to talent (pdf) overall, just paying teachers more and hiring a few less won’t have an appreciable effect. Like most things in education policy, there are not discreet solutions but rather issues that have to be addressed in tandem.

That said, the predictable reaction, given voice at the end of the article today, is that this is a horrible choice we should never have to make. As a centrist by inclination Eduwonk tries to eschew false choices (see below) but this actually isn’t a false choice. The public purse is not limitless, nor is the public’s appetite for more spending, and the supply of top teachers — especially those who succeed with really challenging kids — is not either. Pubic policymaking necessarily involves making choices in an environment of limited resources and to claim otherwise is good rhetoric but merely kicks the can of hard choices down the street a bit.

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