The Agenda

Teacher Effectiveness and Class Size

Catherine Rampell highlights new research by Eric A. Hanushek on the central importance of teacher effectiveness.

I do wish that someone would connect the dots and make the obvious yet important point that Rick Hess has been making for ages: shrinking class sizes over the last forty years has diluted the teacher talent pool. Had we stayed at the teacher-student ratios of the 1970s, we’d have 2.2 million public school teachers rather than 3.2 million. Know what else happened over the last 40 years? Labor market discrimination against women and African Americans declined, giving talented female and African American workers who had once gravitated to the teaching profession other options. Allowing effective teachers to take on larger classes in exchange for more pay could have a powerful positive effect. With the same compensation bill, we could pay far higher salaries. 

Rick has written much more on how we should think about “merit pay,” and how the concept can actually be used to lower costs overall rather than raise them. His recent essay in Educational Leadership is a good place to start:

One-size-fits-all compensation means that we’re either paying the most effective employees too little, paying their less effective colleagues too much, or, most times, a little of each. In a world of scarce talent and limited resources, this is a problem. Savvy leaders recognize the benefits of steering resources to employees who do the most good, as these are the employees whom schools most need to keep and from whom they need to most effectively wring every ounce of skill.

Thus, a crucial element of a well-designed merit-pay system is rewarding employees who not only do a terrific job but also do so in a way that extends their effect on students and schools. Rewarding prized mentors who choose to mentor more colleagues (while continuing to get high marks from them) or boosting pay for terrific classroom teachers who choose to take on larger student loads (while continuing to excel) are ways to use limited resources to amplify the contributions of skilled professionals.

I think Rick is giving us a way to think about compensation strategies across all public sector domains. Among other things, he calls for allowing teachers to specialize, and compensating them for becoming excellent reading instructors, for example. Specialization has always been the key to increasing productivity, and there’s not nearly enough of it in K-12 education despite the fact that we know have tools for extending the reach of the most effective teachers. 

Many critics of the federal pay freeze argue that we clearly need smart, accomplished professionals working as regulators and as procurement officers, and that’s clearly true. But that’s not a case for raising everyone’s compensation in lockstep. Rather, it is a case for giving public sector managers more autonomy in determining how to parcel out compensation across workers, and differentiating pay in response to the broader labor market, productivity and performance, etc.


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