Real men of genius

One of my favourite education writers, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, writes about a Mr. Eric Hanushek, who in addition to being an economist, may very well be a real man of genius.  Remember all that money that might be flowing to the schools?

I read about a school principal who disliked saying she was firing staff. She preferred the phrase “freeing up teachers’ futures.” That is sort of what Hoover Institution economist Eric A. Hanushek is saying we should do with any new school bailout: use it to pay severance packages for ineffective teachers so they can find their true calling elsewhere.

That’s not going to happen any time soon, of course.

Hanushek’s article actually has a much larger scope: he looks at different possibilities of what will happen to schools (with respect to the economy) and discusses multiple strategies.  Still, the notion of paying teachers to leave has a certain amount of poetic justice to it; and really,who among you didn’t have an absolutely crappy high school teacher that really needed to be asked to go elsewhere to find their calling?  How much better would schools be without much of that intellectual detritus?

Both Mathews and Hanushek see the obvious problem:

My first problem with his solution, as he recognizes, is that we are not really sure which teachers are effective and which are not. Most districts have no dependable way to find out.

That depends on what the meaning of “dependable” is.  As I’ve said often before (here and elsewhere), there are very dependable ways to identify the ineffective teachers.  Students know.  Principals usually know.  When people say that there aren’t dependable ways to find out, what they usually mean is one of three things: (1) There’s no way to prove that a teacher is ineffective, at least not with a strong enough basis to withstand a lawsuit or a union action; (2) A method might have some false positives and false negatives — some good teachers might accidentally get swept up and some bad teachers might be missed; (3) that they don’t want to fire any teachers anyway so they won’t accept any method as dependable.

I really don’t see either (2) or (3) as an actual problem.  (3) is just institutional inertia.  As for (2), when I clean a sticky spill from my counter — some counter molecules come off onto the scrub brush, and some spill molecules are left behind.  So what?  (1) is a thornier problem — for all the reasons that get discussed ad nauseam throughout the edublogosphere.  When it takes half a million dollars and months of time and effort to fire a teacher, you can imagine what sorts of painstaking accuracy and relevance will be demanded by teachers and unions and what sort of holy hell will be raised if it isn’t.  Still, hat’s off to Mr. Hanushek’s thinking outside the box.