By Request: Personnel Quality

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I liked NS’s other question too:

Why is “finding better teachers” such a preoccupation among self-described education reformers? Of course, we’d have a better education system if our teachers were better. We’d also have a better military if our soldiers were better and a better health care system if our doctors and nurses were better. Why is education the only policy area where “find better people” is treated as a workable solution?

With regard to soldiers, I would reject the premise. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War there was a very low level of interest in joining the United States military and consequently in order to maintain the required overall force size it was necessary to make recruiting standards quite low and to be pretty lax about who you would keep on. The rebuilding of the quality of the personnel employed by the military over the course of the 1980s and 1990s is one of the great prides of the officers who were involved. And when the Iraq War was leading to a personnel crunch and moves toward diluting recruiting standards there was, rightly, a great deal of hand-wringing over it. Concern about personnel quality is also one of, if not the, main reason why the military brass is generally very hostile to the idea of conscription and this is also why we’ve encouraged our NATO allies to abolish conscript and build smaller, higher-quality, more professionalized forces.

Quality of personnel should always be a concern across public services. Some cities, for example, have trouble offering police officers salaries that are as high as what’s offered in neighboring suburbs. This tends to lead to problems with the quality of the staff available to urban police departments which, in turn, makes it more difficult to keep crime under control.

With regard to teachers, though, it’s worth trying to be more specific since the debate has focused on a couple of particular points. In the United States, we tend to require teachers to do a lot of preemptive qualifying in terms of getting themselves certified. And then after a few years of teaching, they become eligible for tenure status. But we do have some fairly extensive experience with teachers going into the classroom without traditional certification. And the evidence suggests that such teachers are basically just as effective as the teachers who do have the traditional certification. The evidence also suggests that while teachers tend to get a lot more effective after their first couple of years of experience, they don’t get more and more and more effective as further time passes. Thus, the general shape of the teacher quality reform proposals is to (a) relax the preemptive screening so as to make it easier for anyone with a college degree to get into the classroom, (b) make the tenure decision more strictly tied to student achievement, and then (c) take advantage whatever increase in your potential labor force step (a) has given you to make it possible to in step (b) dump the bottom X% of the worst-performing teachers. To all of this I would be strongly inclined to add (d) start paying people more to further increase the size of the labor pool and make step (c) all the more effective.

But the need to have good people doing important public services is by no means unique to teaching and it certainly applies to the military.