In the room for debate on “Why Blame the Teachers?” a high school teacher offers this:

“…college graduates are not going to be attracted to a profession that only encourages short stints. The majority of teachers did not choose their profession because of the vacation time, or the salary, or because they thought it would be easy. They chose teaching because they wanted to make a difference in children’s lives in the long term. Those teachers that entered the profession for the more mundane reasons don’t actually stay for very long.”

This very well may be true. This means that either teacher quality will suffer as a result of getting rid of LIFO or school will have to pay teachers more to compensate them for the now riskier profession. On the other hand, a little bit of this may be worth it. If this means on the rare occasion when layoffs happen they go to worst 5% of teachers (worst obviously measured with some error) then it may be worth the slight drop in overall teacher quality that results. After all, the net effect on teacher quality will be the decrease in quality from risk aversion but also the increase in quality by trying to get rid of the worst instead of just the newest teachers. But the fact of the matter is, whether LIFO or some other layoff policy is best may very well depend on local labor markets and other factors. Sure, if you have to pick one policy for all schools, LIFO is probably not the way to go. But the need to mandate policies like this at broad levels is one of the problem with the public education system: it does not allow flexibility and adaptation.

The real problem isn’t deciding which layoff policy to use. After all, the right one today may be the wrong in five years. And the right one in Town A may be the wrong one in Town B 30 miles away. The real problem is assuring that the people who run schools have the freedom to choose policies that best cater to their specific local labor market, and that they have the incentives to do so in a way that maximizes the educational value of taxpayers money. If schools are allowed freedom and accountability, then if a school gets rid of LIFO but the best employees value it, then the other school down the road can adopt it and lure talent away, and if the loss in talent causes the schools quality to suffer then they will be pressured to adopt it again.

It may also be the case that with the threat of change in the air a school system that promises stability will be able to lure the most talented teachers, and that a school that can promise tenure for life, LIFO, and no standardized testing will outperform all the rest in some places.

The problem, I think, comes because we can not provide local monopolies like school districts freedom without accountability. Yet without freedom, we must centrally plan. The education reform movement is hard at work finding good ways to measure success, and determine universal and objective rules for how people should be hired and fired, and figuring out what kinds of certifications should be required, etc. The other camp, (I don’t know what to call them but surely they don’t wish to be called anti-reform) scoffs at how difficult this proves and instead thinks we should have… um, smaller classrooms? Actually I’m not really sure what the alternative is other than to convince people of the limitations of education and talk them into applauding the system that we have.

While I applaud the work of the reformers and think it is a drastic improvement over the status quo, I am increasingly worried they may not be able to find the perfect set of rules that allows centrally planned education systems to succeed at the varied and difficult tasks we require of it, and that anti-reform critics may be, in part, correct. Unfortunately for anti-reformers, this does not mean we simply learn to love the status quo, but instead we need the freedom and experimentation that markets and choice provide. This doesn’t necessitate a fully privatized education system, and can include charters, public school choice, and vouchers. It’s also important to remember that, as Rick Hess emphasizes, choice by itself also does not guarantee success. But competition can allow reformers and anti-reformers to test their policy recommendations out and see what works, and it can allow space where the right rules for the right places can evolve.

I hope the reformers succeed in developing better measures and policies so that public education can thrive. I sincerely do. In the meantime, we should be continuing to push for more choice and competition, and work hard to understand the conditions under which that can be successful.

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