Nicholas Kristof has a posse

I am horrified by the Wisconsin legislature’s end-run on teachers’ collective bargaining rights last week, but thrilled by the national conversation on teacher quality and compensation that it’s triggered. Today we see heavyweight Nicholas Kristof weighing in with a great summary of the issue and the stakes, and I am right with him through most of it.

But things break down for me when he echoes pervasive, common-sense calls for greater accountability re: teacher quality –

The teachers’ unions have a point when they complain that existing measurement and evaluation systems are haphazard, but they can be improved — and it’s absurd to say that just because something is difficult to quantify, everybody should be paid the same. It’s difficult to measure or quantify who is a better journalist, or a better lawyer, or a better doctor, but no one thinks that their compensation should be lockstep.

Okay – but actually, doctor quality is quite readily quantified these days as number of patients seen and, sometimes number of tests run and procedures performed. Whether or not it SHOULD be is another question altogether, as the doctors themselves know. In my four years on faculty at a major academic medical center, I saw doctors’ compensation increasingly linked to “thruput,” with bonuses and possible pay docking held over their head to keep the numbers high. It’s a perfect example of “seeing like a state:” counting what can be counted, even if it doesn’t measure what’s most worth measuring. Quantifying doctor quality to link it to compensation, Mr. Kristof, is equally troubling, though no less pervasive.

But then he notes research linking long-term earning potential to early-grades teacher quality, and the comparison really goes off the rails. Imagine for a moment attempting to draw a similar line in medicine – linking, for example, a patient’s cardiovascular health at 65 to the accuracy of an annual physical he received at 40 and using that to determine how good the doctor was who did the exam. Hear the cry: “Absurd! So many other factors came into play – I couldn’t control whether he came back for follow-up, let alone whether or not he quit smoking.” And yet we are comfortable making such long-range assessments of teachers absent meaningful control for social factors (let alone political will to fund measures to address them). In education, we yearn for a pin with a head big enough to fit all the angels that impact student success, the better to count them. But value-added models ain’t it.

Also, reputation accrues to successful physicians, and behind it comes greater compensation as they enter private practice, raise their fees, and generally surf the meritocratic wave that medicine is first among the professions in rewarding. In contrast, how is a teacher recognized for a career-long record of excellence in the almost wholly-unmeasurable register of positive impact on kids’s lives? Reputation, yes, and sometimes pay increase through promotion to one of the more prestigious administrative jobs, which usually takes them away from kids. And tenure, that troubling sop whose history I have not totally grokked yet. (Here’s a California perspective, and a New York one. Anyone else got a link to share?)

And yes, teachers who don’t want to go into administration pursue graduate study for a pay bump (one that can charitably be viewed as getting them to a comfortable standard-of-living, remember – forget supporting a family on it alone, at least in my state). I wonder if grad school for teachers isn’t also a gambit for the respect that might accrue to the letters, some token to mark achievement in a field that barely knows how to. For Arnie Duncan (and Bill Gates), linking advanced degrees to pay raises is on the block now too, as Kristof notes – though he elides the accompanying assertion that advanced study in the field itself (biology for a science teacher, say) SHOULD be unproblematically rewarded. This assertion, whoever makes it, seems woefully ignorant of well-established understanding that knowing a subject well is NOT the same as knowing how to teach it well, pace Lee Shulman and the reams of understanding he opened.

So I think I’m on Kristof’s team today, and certainly applaud his outrage at the recent swipes at the teaching profession. As long as we can bear in mind just how hard it is to measure a great teacher. And if we note just how comfortable we seem as a culture allowing other professions their complexity (and self-governance) while de-skilling and disrespecting teaching as a matter of public policy. Maybe one of the reasons why we’re so comfortable doing so is that we spend most of our formative years watching teacher work: familiarity breeds contempt, a point better made elsewhere. I am happy to see others decry that contempt today. What do you think?

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