If there is one conclusion to be drawn from half a century of studying the American educational system, it is this: throwing more money at the problem will not solve anything. According to the Department of Education, between 1960 and 2000, the pupil-teacher ratio fell from 25.8 to 16.0, the percent of teachers with masters degrees or higher went from 23.5 to 56.2, and the real amount spent per pupil went from $2,235 to $7,591 in 2000 dollars. What did we get for all that money? Reading and math achievement stayed the same, while science results actually fell. In 2003, our spending per pupil was five times that of Poland, but we actually achieved worse results on the international PISA tests.
All of the ways we have thought of to spend more on education show little promise. Longer school days, longer school years, smaller class sizes, more intensive pre-kindergarten programs, higher teacher salaries, and more teacher training have shown few positive results when studied by economists.
Neoliberals such as myself are convinced (partly out of empirical evidence, partly out of faith in competition) that school vouchers and other privatization efforts are the ultimate answer. But the question is moot — for reasons of political economy, a nation-wide school voucher program is simply not in the cards, and even if it were, the public school system would likely remain the educator of the majority of our children for the foreseeable future.
And so, if appreciable gains are to be made in education, the answer is going to have to come in the form of improvements to our public school system. If more resources don’t help, then what can be done with our inefficient schools?
The answer is actually pretty simple: fire bad teachers.
Improving teacher quality by a standard deviation results in a tenth to a fifth of a standard deviation improvement in student performance (see Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain’s 2005 paper on the Texas school system; Rockoff’s 2004 paper on the Los Angeles school system; or Aaronson, Barrow, and Sander’s 2007 paper on the Chicago school system). This is not a small effect; U.S. students are roughly half a standard deviation from the lead in international competitions.
Let’s put it another way: at a given pay level, there is a pool of people in this country willing to work as K-12 teachers. Currently, our school system selects which of these people teach in a near-random manner, hiring them on the basis of qualifications that offer hardly any predictive power for teacher performance. If hiring practices were improved such that only the top third of the labor pool was hired, our student test scores would go up by roughly 1.1 standard deviations. In the latest PISA tests, the U.S. came in 13th, 15th, and 22nd out of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in reading, sciences, and math respectively. If we were using the top third of our teachers, those rankings would have been sixth, ninth, and 12th. Teacher hiring and firing practices are the silver bullet that could end our nation’s below-average academic performance, at minimal cost to the taxpayer.
There are two important questions in developing a policy of improving teacher quality.
The first question is whether or not high-quality teachers can be easily identified — knowing that teacher quality matters doesn’t do much good if it takes 20 years of data before the wheat can be separated from the chaff. Fortunately, the answer is yes, bad teachers can be quickly identified (see Goldhaber and Hansen, 2010). Just two years of student test results offer a powerful data set for distinguishing good from bad teachers, making it possible for school districts to remove bad teachers before they’re given tenure and its associated union protections.
The second question is how aggressively teacher quality can be pushed upward. If our children were taught by only the top 2 percent of our teacher pool, we’d find our educational system sharing the podium with the very best countries in the world. But we are unlikely to find 49 people willing to work as teachers for every teacher we currently have, even in a down economy such as this.
However, even if the dream of an ultra-elite teacher corps is out of reach, the more modest goal of ending American sub-performance is eminently achievable. Not only do we have a large pool of teachers to select from, but even small changes in policy could greatly increase the number of available teachers. The first step is to throw away our teacher certification programs and insistence on graduate-level training: certified teachers perform no better than their uncertified peers (Goldhaber and Brewer, 2000), and teachers with masters degrees — despite their significant salary premium — offer only vanishingly small improvements (Rice 2003 is a good metastudy). By removing the artificial barriers to entry that exist in the teaching profession, we would find ourselves with a much, much larger pool of people to choose from without any degradation of the pool’s quality. It is not unreasonable to think that we could pass over two-thirds of the teaching labor pool and still fill all of the positions that need filling.
After taking these free gains, we could go even further. Increases in teacher pay or an increase in class sizes could yield significant benefits when paired with proper teacher selection. Appropriately targeted merit pay could expand the labor pool while improving its quality, allowing school districts to be more choosy. And while increases in class sizes are not without cost (a doubling of today’s class sizes would result in roughly a tenth of a standard deviation decrease in test scores), having fewer teaching spots to fill would allow principals to be even more selective. Good teacher selection can form the foundation on which other education policies can be built, leading to complementary effects.
Seemingly all politicians promise the best of the best for our educational system. Few are willing to admit that getting the best starts with removing the worst. Today is the time to begin that process, by firing our absolute worst and refusing tenure to those who don’t make the cut.