Matt Yglesias and Mickey Kaus are doing something many political candidates don’t want to: They’re debating firing teachers. Though I think this specific issue — “tenure” and firing teachers — gets much more play than it deserves (the real underlying problem is a culture that accepts and institutionalizes mediocrity rather than specific hiring and firing rules) it is an issue insofar as it gets at American education’s human capital problems more generally, which are a chronic lack of emphasis on effectiveness and performance at every step along a teacher’s value chain from preparation, recruitment, hiring, induction, mentoring and support, and professional development to evaluation and compensation. On this particular blog battle, which as I read it boils down to whether this is much of an issue at all, I think Mickey has it more right than Matt because (a) it is an endogenous situation. In other words, talented people don’t want to work in places that are not talent sensitive and this creates an adverse selection problem that reinforces these problems. (b) current practices make this even worse in practice. And (c) credentialing rules, which often have little connection to research (pdf), further limit the pool of would be or could be teachers.
What could a political candidate do? Create an entirely New Deal for teachers that truly respects and treats them like professionals. Washington’s $3 billion slice of this pie is one place to start. It’s not about firing people, it’s about focusing on effectiveness and that’s good not bad for teachers anyway.