Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 15, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

TEACHER PAY....Should good schoolteachers get paid more than poor ones? Over at Crooked Timber, Harrry Brighouse is skeptical, mainly because he thinks it's hard to figure out who's good and who's not. To cut a long story short, the best method (he thinks) is for principals to evaluate teachers and judge their performance, but that would be "a recipe for cronyism, unfairness, and divisiveness." Forget it.

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mother the schoolteacher (who is reading this and will probably call shortly to complain that I've misrepresented her). Somehow the conversation turned to performance evaluation, and after a bit of back and forth she said, OK, fine, so how do you get evaluated? Well, I said, once a year my boss calls me in, tells me what kind of job he thinks I'm doing, rates me in some way, and then tells me how big a raise I'll be getting.

At first this produced a blank stare. Then a shake of the head. How could that be? This one person has the power to just arbitrarily decide how you're doing? What if he just doesn't like you very much? This could be very unfair, couldn't it?

I just shrugged my shoulders. Yeah, I've had some bosses that liked me and some that didn't. Some people get big raises just for kissing corporate asses (or so the rest of us thought) and some are unfairly kept in lowly positions (usually us and our friends, of course).

But that's just the way it goes. Sure, there are usually some moderately objective criteria involved in all this, but in the end there's also lots of human judgment. Sometimes it's fair, sometimes it isn't.

At that point we just had a clash of cultures and the conversation petered out. To me, the idea that people got subjectively evaluated was fine, even though there's some inherent unfairness in the process. To her, it wasn't. And ne'er the twain shall meet.

There's one more thing, though, that Harry doesn't mention. A big difference between most white collar private sector jobs and classroom teaching is that, to a very large degree, every teacher does the same thing: they teach a single class (or in high school, a certain number of periods). Thus, differential pay is extremely obvious.

In the private sector, pay raises are roughly coordinated with title changes and increases in responsibility. This masks a lot of perceived inequity. You can still complain that Sally shouldn't have gotten the promotion, but everyone agrees that someone has to run Accounts Payable, and that whoever it is will get paid more than a senior AP clerk. What's more, in most private sector environments people work in close proximity, which makes it obvious that some people are more productive than others. Teachers are isolated in their classrooms, so it's a lot less clear who's doing a good job and who isn't.

But here's a question for the crowd: how does teacher pay work in private schools that don't have to worry about unions? I know it's generally lower, but is it also more dependent on subjective evaluation, rather than seniority? If so, does it cause lots of problems? And if not, why not? Any private school teachers care to comment?

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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