relative vs. absolute improvement in policy
Last week, Elizabeth wrote about Finland’s educational system. Like many high performing school systems, Finland relies on a relatively elite teacher corp. However, Elizabeth and other commenters were skeptical that the same approach would work in the US. I.e., you can’t get improvement by firing the worst teachers. The commenters responded that the issue was that the “new” worst teachers would still be matched with the lowest SES students. This response is not persuasive because it conflates two issues: relative improvement and absolute improvement.
While we would love all students to get exactly equal treatment in school, the most realistic goal for an institution in the short term to seek improvements with existing resources. I.e., the typical school in the South Side of Chicago needs *better* teachers, not the exact same teachers as the elite school in Winnetka. There are two reasons for this.
First, even modest improvements in outcomes matters. The typical low SES school instructor probably won’t have the same effect as the elite math teacher in Winnetka, but improving a graduation rate from 55% to 60% would result in literally hundreds of low SES kids having the high school credential or admission to college. It matters.
Second, in a system of local control, it is not entirely clear why we should expect random assignment of teachers to schools. The way the teaching profession works is that schools compete for teachers by offering higher salaries, nicer facilities, and higher SES students that are easier to teach. One can imagine a Federal system for assigning teachers to schools, but that isn’t coming any time soon. For now, we work with what we have.
Bottom line: Yes, firing the worst teachers will almost certainly increase the educational outcomes of a school. Don’t give up real, achievable gains in an attempt to stamp out all inequality.