The Agenda

Jim Manzi on Teacher Evaluations

The title of this post doesn’t really do justice to Jim Manzi’s thought-provoking reflections on efforts to gauge the effectiveness of teachers:

Any successful company that I have ever seen employs some kind of a serious system for evaluating and rewarding / punishing employee performance. But if we think of teaching in these terms – as a job like many others , rather than some sui generis activity – then I think that the hopes put forward for such a system by its advocates are somewhat overblown.

Jim goes on to explain the many pitfalls of a rigid system of teacher evaluations. The only observation I’ll make is that I suspect many reformers see teacher evaluations as a second-best approach. In an ideal, less litigious world, managers would be empowered to make hiring and firing decisions based on a number of factors, e.g., does this teacher play well with others, does he have the “soft skills” he needs to do his job well, does he use a variety of strategies to keep easy-to-teach students in his class while fobbing off harder-to-teach students on others, etc., that are hard to quantify. This would place an even higher premium on effective school administrators, but it would also give teachers weaker protections against what many will see as arbitrary dismissals. 

In conclusion, Jim writes:

In other words, better measurements of teacher value-added are useful on the margin, but teacher evaluation as a program to improve school performance will likely only work in the context of much better school organization and management.

Part of what makes me nervous is that productivity varies dramatically within industries. It is very common for comparable factories at the 90th percentile produce four times as much as factories at the 10th percentile. Moreover, the scorecards and shortcuts used by factories at the 90th percentile wouldn’t necessarily work for those at the 10th percentile. Managerial insights are usually embedded in a complex tangle on personalities and practices that can’t easily be replicated. This is natural, and I’d say that I’d much rather see a few firms race ahead than allow all firms to remain mired at the low end of the productivity spectrum.  Suffice it to say, this is not the ethic that governs how we generally think about public schools.

In a time when at least half of the political spectrum is deeply troubled by inequality, i.e., by the fact that some firms, individuals, and households are racing far ahead of others, what at least some education reformers are saying is that we want to unleash a few inventive, well-managed schools to start deploying the same per pupil resources to much greater effect. That is, we want to, in the short run at least, make the K-12 educational landscape more unequal, in the hope that leading schools will identify instructional methods, e.g., effective virtual instruction, that will prove scalable.

Much depends on how one interprets the fact that some firms, individuals, and households are racing ahead of the others. I take what I think of as a nuanced view. Generally speaking, some firms, individuals, and households race ahead of others due to a combination of luck, opportunity, and smart investments in organizational capital. In some cases, we see rent-seeking, tax and regulatory arbitrage, etc. But whereas Simon Johnson and many of my friends on the left see this as the dominant narrative, I see it as a significant but nevertheless relatively small part of the wage dispersion story. 

Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen have written a neat essay in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on how effective management practices spread. I was struck by many of their observations, including some that will be familiar to those of you who see organizational capital as very important (“firms that more intensively use human capital, as measured by more educated workers, tend to have much better management practices”).

The United States has a commanding lead in terms of the quality of management in firms. This is very interesting considering our relative weakness in terms of educational attainment at the median in the prime-age cohorts. And I suspect that this feeds back into wage dispersion as well as assortative mating, family breakdown, and other sources of “stickiness” at the low end of the income distribution. For a variety of reasons, our economy is rewarding people with managerial skills, and, in a crude sense, one might be able to extrapolate the ability to manage a wide range of tasks in the workplace to the ability to maintain constructive relationships in other domains. The obvious objection is that many hard-charging executives neglect their families and personal lives, etc. But it could also be true that the that neglect of parental responsibilities is somewhat more common among those marginally attached to the labor force, due to the greater prevalence of substance abuse and other risky behaviors.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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