What's the best way to identify the best?

My AFR oped today is on teacher quality, discussing the various ways we might identify the best teachers. Full text over the fold.

Class in the Classroom, Australian Financial Review, 3 June 2008

It is rarely recognised, but Australia in the 1960s had two ingenious ways of keeping teacher quality high. First, rampant gender pay discrimination in the professions pushed many talented women into teaching (where gender pay gaps were generally smaller). Second, a highly regulated labour market meant that many companies rewarded their employees based on tenure, not performance – just as teaching did (and still does).

Over the past half-century, these two factors changed radically. On balance, the large-scale entry of women into business, law, and medicine has been a terrific development. But an unintended consequence is that fewer talented women now become teachers. And while the growth of performance pay has benefited many occupations, it has made the uniform salary schedules in teaching look increasingly unattractive to today’s graduates.

Although there are many talented teachers in Australia’s classrooms, there is also a growing realisation that Australia faces a crisis in teacher quality if it does not do more to attract the best into the teaching profession. But how should ‘best’ be defined?

One simple way would be to pay a higher salary to teachers who obtain a Masters degree. If undertaking a Masters degree improves classroom performance, then this would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, at least three US studies have found that students’ test score gains are unrelated to whether or not their teacher has a Masters degree. And my own work – using data from Queensland primary school teachers – comes to the same conclusion. Bonus payments for teachers who obtain a Masters degree therefore seem a bad idea.

Another strategy – advocated in a report last week from the Business Council of Australia – is to establish a form of professional licensing for teachers. On its face, this strategy sounds uncontroversial. If doctors, lawyers and accountants have licensing systems, surely a teacher accreditation hurdle must be good? Yet what is often missed is that accreditation systems have two effects: they impose a quality bar, but because they are time-consuming, they also act as an entry barrier, deterring some talented people from entering the profession. Since these two effects go in opposite directions, it is theoretically possible for accreditation systems to raise, lower, or have no effect on quality. Indeed, studies that have looked at the impact of stricter licensing regimes for doctors and dentists find no evidence that they benefit consumers (although they do appear to raise wages).

The accreditation system proposed in the BCA report is modelled on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which has accredited about 2 percent of US teachers. Yet it omits to mention that the typical NBPTS applicant devotes a whopping 357 hours to preparing an application. Given that one of the chief complaints of Australian teachers is excessive paperwork, this potential discouragement effect should not be underestimated. Consistent with this, economists Joshua Angrist and Jonathan Guryan found that US states which implemented a teacher certification system did not raise the academic standards of new teachers.

Given the drawbacks of pay-for-credentials schemes, a natural alternative is to consider pay-for-performance, in which the best teachers are identified by their principals, school inspectors, or through some objective measure such as student test score gains. Radical as this sounds to teachers’ ears, such an approach would be pretty similar to the way that salaries are determined for most workers (including state and federal bureaucrats).  And while merit pay could theoretically have undesirable effects (breaking down staffroom camaraderie; encouraging teaching to the test; tempting teachers to cheat), the evidence from places as diverse as Israel, India and the US suggests that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

But don’t take my word for it. If we want to know the best way to identify the best teachers, let’s run a series of randomised trials: pitting the current system against various alternatives to see which one comes out on top. In the same way that we test new drugs before putting them on pharmacy shelves, we ought to be sure that strategies to attract and keep talented teachers actually work before rolling them out nationwide.

Looking back at the fall in teacher quality should give us some modesty about our ability to predict the future. In the 1960s, few would have predicted that less gender pay discrimination and more inequality would lower teacher quality. If the goal of policy is to boost teacher quality in the coming decades, let’s make sure it’s underpinned by the best evidence we can muster.

Andrew Leigh is an economist in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

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10 Responses to What's the best way to identify the best?

  1. David says:

    Andrew, I think I’ve raised this a few times before when you’ve talked about the advantages of randomised trials in generating evidence about teacher pay and performance but I don’t think you’ve ever responded.

    My question is, given there are hundreds of private schools in Australia who can pay their teachers on whatever basis they want, can we examine what they have done and what has worked and what hasn’t? Is there any data on this? Do any private schools use some kind of performance pay? If so, how have they done it? Has it helped? (or isn’t there the data to be able to tell?) If not, why not? Does that suggest it’s not a good idea?

  2. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Just to stir (unlike me, I realise). Why do we want to attract the best and brightest into teaching? As opposed to the ‘merely’ competent? Criticisms I have of the education system seldom relate to teaching per se, it relates to reporting of student performance and to the syllabus – something teachers themselves have little or no control over.

  3. Christine says:

    I think teachers are more “born” and less “made”. They can be best and brightest as students but not necessarily have the stagecraft to hold the attention of smarty pants kids. Talent in class control and love of the profession should be well paid. Teachers who were either good or average as students and are less comfortable with their job should be able to say so and be given practical help by the school and wider community. They should have good pay as well.

    Re that Baby Bonus. Malcolm Fraser’s family allowance was vital for my raising of three who, thanks to their teachers, have become taxpayers. An Australian community effort paid off.

  4. Keith Birney says:

    I am always intrigued by such discussions regarding “teacher quality”, primarily because each and every participant appears to come to the table with a huge collection of personal “givens” of which they seem to be unaware or only vaguely so.
    For a start, a “good” teacher is a rather personal thing for the pupil and is dependent on all sorts of influences. I would suspect that, where the measure of “goodness” is the number of pupils passing a given test, the “best” teachers would be those who identify the minimum requirement for a pass and who concentrate on drumming that into the unwashed masses fronting them.
    In a world where we have not yet devised a good definition of such basics as intelligence nor a sensible definition of education and seem happy to conflate education with training, I suspect that we tend to measure whatever we think we can measure and somehow try to justify how this means anything sensible.
    Certainly I would have thought that devising systems that mean that promotion – in terms of status and salary – involves removing those who really enjoy classroom teaching from what they enjoy and trying to involve them in being unhappy – and hence probably mediocre – administrators is not a good idea.
    Maybe we could start there?

  5. Asked my class this afternoon of 4 students of whom 3 are in Education their views on performance pay and they were sympathetic.

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    David, looking at private schools is a great idea. Unfortunately, I’ve had little luck in finding a move to merit pay that I can use as a quasi-experiment. Let me know if you hear of one.

    Sinc, I guess the argument would be that if human capital has a positive externality, then we will get higher productivity if we have smarter teachers in the classroom. But I agree that I’m naughtily dodging the question of which occupation I think should be less talented.

    Geoff, I think your students might be atypical of today’s teachers (depending on how you worded the question). According to pp118-9 of the 2007 SASS, most teachers don’t support pay being linked to student test score gains.

  7. Cathy says:

    Andrew, when you say that there is no correlation between the teacher holding a masters degree and student learning, do you mean a master of education or a real masters degree?

  8. Sinclair Davidson says:

    LOL. Cathy you go sit in the corner.

  9. Kerry Bell says:

    Having recently assumed a senior business management role within a well respected private education group and coming from a background in a highly competitive sector of Australian Industry I have been astonished to discover how little information there is available on a beneficial perfomance based reward system for teaching staff.

    Here I should mention that I belive teaching to be one of the most difficult of all tasks, especially taking into account the complexities mentioned in the comment of Kieth Birney (3.06.08: 1.12pm)

    However what has surprised me most has been the lack of buy in for performance based reward from senior academic staff. My suggestion has been for a simple measure which, from a back ground in production based industries, would go something like this:

    If x no of students in your classes go ahead in a term (or year) by say 10% in terms of academic result and personal development and y go ahead by say 15% you must be delivering better outcomes (and by definition be a better teacher) than if your students results go collectively backwards or remain the same?

    Whenever I have raised this subject in the last few months I have been given sympathetic looks but have had no buy in at all. It seems that outside of pupil teacher ratio’s there is no other measure anyone is interested in talking about and Andrew has shown this has little value in previous works of his I have read (Fin Review)

    To me we seem to be overlooking the deliver of good student outcomes in the whole mix and surely that is why, in its purest form, the industry exists? Am I being too simplistic??

  10. christine says:

    I probably sound like a broken record on this, but having a system of merit pay similar to what applies in the federal government/private sector would mean putting it under the control of principals, pretty much. And any such system would need to seriously consider the issue of principals’ incentives.

    Doesn’t mean it’s not desirable in some sense, or doable, but you need to take care. Merit pay does tie in well with Keith’s point that having a careeer path that involves promotion to principal is not a good idea. But I actually think most of the good teachers don’t become principals anyway. Think about who would self-select into the position.

    How much academic work is there on principals, btw? They must matter for student learning too, I’d have thought? But I don’t recall much.

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